By Alexander Dziadosz
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A holiday in Libya may sound like an absurdity now, but many of the country's tour operators and officials are already starting to predict a bright future for the travel industry once the dust of war settles.
The coastal country has all the makings for a vibrant tourism business, they say: warm weather, beaches, antiquities and proximity to Europe -- all factors that helped the industry thrive in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
If developed, tourism could eventually help dent Libya's high jobless rate by creating work for tour guides, drivers, restaurant workers and hotel staff, as well as help it diversify its economy away from dependency on oil and gas.
The fact that operators are thinking about resuming business at all -- some predicted tourists would start arriving again within a year -- testifies to the relative peace that has prevailed in Tripoli and other parts of Libya since the former rebels ousted Muammar Gaddafi's forces from the capital in August.
One company, Sherwes Travel, already advertises a three-day, 295-euro tour of "post-war Libya" on its website, featuring visits to sites in Tripoli and to the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Employees admit it may be a bit optimistic.
"The tour was very popular, actually. But not now, not yet," said Ibrahim Usta, the company's self-described international customer assistant. He said while some potential visitors had been in touch, it was not yet possible to bring them to Libya.
"We have many inquiries right now, but the problem is mainly security and visas," he said. "There's no (visa) system in place and many embassies are not functioning."
Usta and others said tourism was languishing before the revolt because of apathy, incompetence, complex visa requirements, draconian police oversight and mercurial regulations under Gaddafi's government.
Sabri Ellotai, manager of Sabri Tours and Travel, described bringing a group of Germans in 2009 only to have them turned away at the airport because they did not have an Arabic translation for their passports -- a requirement he had never heard of before.
"I heard about it (the law) at the airport," Ellotai said, shaking his head.
He and others said they hoped the country's new rulers -- currently represented by the interim National Transitional Council (NTC) -- would be able to do more with the industry when the war is over.
NTC forces are still fighting to take over Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and a few other bastions of Gaddafi loyalists, which has impeded efforts to set up effective government nationwide and restart oil production.
WEEDS AND RUINS
Libya's lucrative oil and gas industry made tourism less of a priority than in Egypt and Tunisia, where it was a major contributor of jobs and foreign revenues before the uprisings in those countries.
Libyan central bank official Ali Shnebesh estimated tourism could account for between 3 and 4 percent of the economy within five to ten years, depending on how much effort the country's new government puts into it.
"It would decrease unemployment, since we have a lot of areas that are good for tourism," he said. "It would put thousands of our people to work in these places in many sectors -- telecommunications, transportation, hotels -- everywhere."
It is difficult to tell how much tourism contributed to Libya's economy before the revolt because it was not tracked as a separate industry in central bank records, but Shnebesh estimated it was below half a percent of gross domestic product.
That compares to Egypt, for instance, where officials said it accounted for over 11 percent before the revolt.
There is plenty of evidence of the lax oversight at the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene, which was featured in the chronicler Herodotus's "The Histories" and is now a UNESCO world heritage site, in the eastern Jebel al-Akhdar region.
The site is overgrown with weeds and graffiti etched onto one of its old columns. A renovation crew of Italians, Americans and French fled after the uprising started, guards there said.
Jamal Salem, 50, sitting in the afternoon sun outside a souvenir shop filled with woven baskets, photographs and ceramic statues still on display, said there weren't many visitors even before the revolt.
"A lot of people think Libyans are terrorists, and so they're afraid of coming here," he said. "We hope the picture will become clearer now, and that things will get better."
GUNS IN THE MEDINA
Others lingering in the area of Cyrene said they also hoped the revolt would help stamp out what they saw as widespread corruption and regional favoritism in the industry.
"Before, companies had their headquarters in Tripoli. They brought the cars from Tripoli, they brought the translators from Tripoli, everything. Nobody here benefited from it at all," Hussein Saleh, who volunteered to help guard Cyrene, said.
Others near Cyrene and other sites said they also hoped a new government would show more interest in preserving relics.
"We're expecting a better future, and maybe more interest in renovating the antiquities," said Muftah Mabrook, a 35-year-old researcher at the ancient Greek port of Apollonia, a picturesque collection of columns and other ruins set against the sea.
While such ambitions are running high, it's too soon to say how the situation will turn out.
Tripoli's atmospheric old city is slowly coming back to life as jewelry shops and cafes reopen up in its winding streets, for instance, but many alleys are still littered with bullet casings.
In some areas, young men with Kalashnikov assault rifles sit smoking and chatting on stoops or around street corners. They are friendly, for the most part, as they smile and wave at foreign passersby, but their presence is not likely to encourage most holidaymakers.
The relative lack of English and French language speakers, as well as the ban on alcohol, may also make it hard for Libya to compete on a large scale with Egypt and Tunisia even after the war is finished, some operators say.
But Usta, like many others, was confident the industry would eventually thrive.
"We have everything. We have the desert, we have the sea, we have mountains. We just need the right people in the right place."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)