LEPTIS MAGNA, LIBYA — Libya today may not figure on the itineraries of most tourists, but the ancient Roman port city of Leptis Magna, east of the capital Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, once had pride of place on maps of the Roman Empire.
Travelers to Leptis Magna back then would have had to curtail their journeys by the mid-4th century, when decline of Roman rule here began to set in and the city was attacked by the Vandals. Likewise, for most of the last 30 years that Libya has been ruled by the eccentric Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has largely been inaccessible to tourists.
But now that appears to be changing, as Libya begins to take steps to shelve its image as a terrorist state in favor of one that trumpets an exotic tourism destination. British consultants have been hired, and Libya is working with the World Tourism Organization to open things up.
Mr. Qaddafi's handover in April of two Libyan suspects for trial in the 1989 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has led to a suspension of UN sanctions that prohibited international flights. Since 1992, visitors had no choice but to make long desert drives from neighboring Tunisia or Egypt.
Chief draws are immaculate beaches - by reputation the least developed and least polluted along the entire Mediterranean coast - the pristine condition of Leptis Magna and other Roman ruins, Greek sites at Cyrenia and Apollonia, and ancient cave drawings deep in the Sahara.
"From the moment people come, they completely change their thinking about Libya," says Hussein Founi, the US-educated head of a tour company that specializes in archaeology and Sahara group tours. "Ninety-nine percent are surprised, because they get such warm reception and people treat them well."
Libyan officials and diplomats are quick to point out that the country's infrastructure lags far behind the recent calls welcoming tourists. Only a few top-end hotels and restaurants are tourist-friendly, they say.
Often visitors arriving at the airport must change $500 at an unfavorable official rate. And strict bans on alcohol consumption make Libya an unlikely new Mecca for sun-worshipping European vacationers.
"Libya has great potential, but what they want is selective tourism, not mass tourism," says a senior Western diplomat. "And if you have tourism, you must face social change. People are going to go around and see things."
Still, Libyans say that the government is considering lifting the alcohol restrictions - at least in some tourist areas - and approving a new "tourism" exchange rate equivalent to the black market one.
World War II buffs will find an underground headquarters bunker at Tobruk - once disguised with a school house on top - used by both Rommel and Montgomery. The bunker has been turned into a military museum, which includes the remains of "Lady Be Good," an American B-24 aircraft that crashed in the desert in 1943.
Well-preserved ancient ruins make clear why Leptis Magna may soon be a "must see" on more tourist itineraries, just as it was on those of mobile Romans. Covered by sand since it was abandoned in the 11th century - so the pink Aswan marble was protected from the steady corrosion of salt water and sand storms - the fine detail that remains provides a strong example of Roman-era worksmanship.
On most days, there are few visitors. "This is adventure travel, and we love it," said a German man, sheltering from a wind and rainstorm with his wife on the lee side of the Severan Arch.
Still, unlike the tourist attractions elsewhere in the Arab world, especially Egypt, there are no teeming crowds of aggressive boys and trinket merchants trying to separate you from your money.
Rows of cracked marble heads of Medusa, each with hair a tangle of snakes and with different menacing looks, watch over one forum. The words of one Japanese traveler, sitting alone in the Roman amphitheater, stick in Founi's memory and remind him of Libya's tourism potential.
"It is really worth coming all the way from Japan," the woman told him, "just to sit here for ten or 15 minutes."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society