Libyan 4×4 enthusiasts drive through bumpy Sahara desert to boost tourism
A road trip through the Libyan desert would have long sounded like a vacation in hell, but two months after the ceasefire, adventurous travelers explore the Sahara in 4x4s.
Foreigners still stay away from the country after a decade of war, but some 1,000 Libyans recently left in a pioneer convoy of 300 all-terrain vehicles through the sandy desert.
Hoping that the October truce will hold, they sought to rediscover the natural beauty of a country that offers panoramic desert views, hidden oasis towns, ancient Greek and Roman ruins and a Mediterranean coastline.
4×4 enthusiasts – almost all men, sport sunglasses and outdoor gear – started their trek in Al-Qaryah Al-Gharbiyah, a crossroads town nicknamed the “Gateway to the Sahara” 350 kilometers (220 miles) south of Tripoli.
After filling their tanks and checking their equipment and supplies, they set off in a cloud of dust through a sunny landscape where the desert is framed by ocher mountains.
Joumaa Omar, a tour guide specializing in trips to the Sahara, called the trip a “reunion of brothers” and a symbol of peace in a country torn by violence since the ouster and murder in 2011 of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Omar, 55, on his first desert expedition in many years, said it was an opportunity to “bring everyone together with the message ‘yes to peace, not to violence’.”
They were heading to Tadrart Acacus, a mountain range near the Algerian border famous for its spectacular rock formations and prehistoric cave paintings listed as World Heritage.
– “So much to offer” –
For years, Libya has been torn by a brutal conflict between two rival administrations that fought with militias, drones and foreign mercenaries.
A UN-brokered ceasefire in October raised hopes that the oil-rich country, which has also become a haven for human traffickers, will finally find stability and peace.
Most foreign governments still advise their citizens to avoid traveling to Libya for now, but for the war-weary group of Libyan citizens, it was time to hit the road.
“We have been working hard for weeks (…) to make sure that there will be no safety issues as we pass,” Omar said.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, participants had to present negative tests and travel separately in “small groups, to respect social distancing,” Omar said.
Gaddafi’s Libya had, towards the end of his reign, gradually opened up to foreign tourism, after decades of boycott by the international community.
With the lifting of the UN embargo in 2003, Tripoli began issuing visas, established a tourism ministry and launched a strategy to attract international visitors.
Libya welcomed 110,000 foreign tourists in 2010, earning $ 40 million, a figure that effectively fell to nil the following year.
One of the desert drivers, Abdallah al-Maghrabi, who joined the group from Ajdabiya in eastern Libya, said the trip would help create “a beautiful image of the country”.
“For nearly a decade, the world has heard nothing but war and chaos in Libya, even though the country has so much to offer,” he said.
To make tourism a profitable sector again, he said, Libyan factions will need to build stability and find a way to “end their differences.”
Another participant, Abdel Hamid Mohamad, 30 years old and having traveled a lot abroad, was enthusiastic: âI discovered that Libya is no less beautiful than other tourist destinations.
“I now understand why so many foreigners wanted to come to Libya before 2011 … The country is worth a visit.”