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Seeing tourism in Libya's future

Under Gadhafi, the country relied on oil wealth. New leaders say reserves will someday run out.

LEPTIS MAGNA, Libya - The breathtaking ruins of this Roman Empire port city may hold the key to a brighter economic future for Libya, which under Moammar Gadhafi was dangerously dependent on oil.

Some of Libya's new leaders say the country must develop other revenue sources because even Libya's vast oil reserves - the biggest in Africa - will one day run out. Tourism, which long stagnated under Gadhafi, is one lucrative realm.

"I think that that's one of the major shifts, strategically, for the economy of Libya," outgoing Finance and Oil Minister Ali Tarhouni said of the push toward economic diversity.

Leptis Magna, one of ancient Rome's best-preserved sites, symbolizes both Libya's economic potential and the long road toward fulfilling it. Tourism officials hope historical places such as Leptis Magna, along with hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline and dramatic desert vistas, will eventually draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

But they acknowledge that getting the country ready for mass tourism, including building more hotels and paving roads, will take time. "We have a lot to do, but we have the big hope that tourism will be something very important in the future," said Sami Naas, a tourism official. "We try to invest what we have now into tourism."

For now, the aftershocks of Libya's bloody eight-month civil war, which ended with the October capture and killing of Gadhafi, are keeping visitors away. While there has been little violence since the fall of the Gadhafi regime, the interim government has not yet asserted full authority over some of the militias that brought down the dictator.

The ancient cobblestone streets of Leptis Magna were largely deserted last month. The city, which was settled as far back as the beginning of the first millennium B.C., flourished under the Romans and boasts largely unspoiled remains of a forum, baths, triumphal arch, and theater.

On a recent day, about two dozen employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross, taking a break from visiting detention centers, rested in the cool shade of what remains of Leptis Magna's basilica.

Their Libyan guide, Ziad Siala, said that in the Gadhafi era, tourism was tightly controlled. Visitors had to travel in groups, and could not explore freely on their own, he said. Even then, Libya couldn't quite cope with the few who came, he said.

"We had a big problem training guides and tour leaders," said Siala, 34, who led his last foreign group shortly after the outbreak of the anti-Gadhafi uprising in mid-February. "It was difficult to draw them into this industry. If they knew English or French, they would rather work in the oil industry."

The country is trying to rebuild oil output to prewar levels, but Tarhouni said major economic reform would have to wait for a government to be elected by next summer because the interim government would not have the mandate for significant changes.

Oil has dominated Libya's economy since the 1970s, and in recent years provided an estimated 80 percent of the Gadhafi regime's revenue, though little of that trickled down to ordinary Libyans.

The dictator and his family used Libya as a private bank, Tarhouni said Thursday, noting that the National Oil Corp. had 20 hidden accounts, in addition to eight declared ones. He said the ruling family was "selling oil for cash [that] nobody kept track of."

At the same time, official corruption and a tangle of government restrictions stunted private-sector growth. Lack of a skilled workforce - the result of a poor education system - and the import of thousands of foreign workers meant high unemployment. Libya had to import most of its food because agriculture was underdeveloped.

The regime tried to keep the social peace through minimal, but large-scale, welfare payments.

Tarhouni said that he was astounded by the number of Libyans drawing government benefits. Many Libyans now expect that the incoming government, to run Libya until June parliament elections, will keep paying and even raise benefits, he said.

The new Libya will have to overhaul the entire system to put the economy on a more stable foundation, he said. That will mean encouraging the private sector, particularly tourism and financial services.