When the U.S. government last month lifted its 22-year-old ban on Americans traveling to Libya, several tour operators rushed in with itineraries. "This has been a 'forbidden...

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When the U.S. government last month lifted its 22-year-old ban on Americans traveling to Libya, several tour operators rushed in with itineraries.

“This has been a ‘forbidden fruit’ nation,” said Tom Stanley, president of the luxury Travcoa company in Newport Beach, Calif. “There are a lot of people who are curious.”

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But visiting Moammar Gadhafi’s socialist North African nation, which boasts stellar Roman ruins and striking Sahara desert scenery, won’t be the typical tourist jaunt, at least not yet.

Although the U.S. government has lifted its travel ban, the State Department issued a sternly worded warning earlier this month against going to Libya, citing safety issues (see www.travel.state.gov). Getting a visa can be tedious because there is no Libyan Embassy or consulate in the United States.


If you don’t want to travel solo to Libya, here are some companies offering tours this spring and fall.

• Mountain Travel Sobek: 888-687-6235, www.mtsobek.com

• Travcoa: 800-992-2003, www.travcoa.com

• Distant Horizons: 800-333-1240, www.distant-horizons.com

Sanctions cause limitations

Spending money may be problematic. That’s partly because U.S. economic sanctions (which still continue against Libya) forbid Americans from using U.S.-issued credit cards there — so bring lots of cash.

The country’s tourist infrastructure, from hotels to domestic air service, is not extensively developed, tour operators say, although it’s improving.

Going to Gadhafi’s country may pose political and ethical problems, too. In lifting the travel ban, the White House praised Libya for taking “significant steps” toward disclosing and dismantling its weapons of mass destruction. But the United States still lists Libya as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Human rights criticized

Libya’s human-rights record has been criticized in Amnesty International’s annual reports. (Libya has disputed the criticisms.) But there has been progress on that front, too: Gadhafi last month met with Amnesty representatives during the activist group’s first visit to Libya in 15 years.

If you go to Libya, you’ll find what some regard as the best-preserved Roman ruins outside Italy. These include the sprawling ancient city of Leptis Magna and the theater at Sabratha, both not far from Tripoli. Cyrene has fine Greek ruins. The Sahara in the south, with its intriguing Tuareg culture and prehistoric rock paintings, is popular with European adventure travelers.

Those are some of Libya’s charms. Here are some of the issues:

Safety: “It is still not safe to go there,” said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “You have to be alert. And you certainly shouldn’t be drawing attention to yourself as an American citizen.”

Some tour operators disagree with this assessment. “Libya is very, very safe,” said Janet Moore, president of Distant Horizons in Long Beach, Calif., who was in Libya this month researching her company’s upcoming tours.

Visas: Because the visa process for Americans going to Libya is new, it is a bit sketchy. If you’re taking a group tour, the company should be able to guide you through it. If you’re on your own, you’ll need to deal with Libya’s consulates, known as People’s Bureaus. The nearest one is in Ottawa, Canada, 613-230-0919, www.libya-canada.org