When someone mentions Libya to me, I recall the oversized revolutionary figure of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the brutal civil war. Gaddafi ruled this North African country from 1969 to 2011. Gaddafi rose to power when he overthrew King Idris, who had come to power after the Italians. Gaddafi was a colorful character who at times promoted pan-Arabism, then Pan-Africanism and even rapprochement with the west. He supported revolutionary movements throughout Africa as well as terrorism, including the bombing of Pan Am 103. Libya was swept up in the Arab Spring of 2011 which resulted in the killing of Gaddafi by rebel forces. Years of internecine fighting took place in Libya, and today an uneasy peace holds with separate power centers in the east and west of the country.
Libya is one of the more challenging countries to visit. There is virtually no tourism and limited tourism infrastructure. The visa is challenging to attain. Speaking to a Libyan on the same flight from Tunis to Tripoli, he was shocked to learn that I was a tourist and he implied that I was actually with the CIA. There is no independent travel to Libya as you are required to use a tour company and will not be able to leave the airport otherwise if you have not engaged a provider. During our trip, we did not see any Western tourists.
To attain a visa, you need to work with one of five companies to expedite your visa. In my case, I sent a scan of my passport and a Paypal of 125 Euro to Sherwes Travel. Your paperwork will be sent to several government offices who will either approve or reject your visa (for a short period of time there was a VOA, but this was cancelled in August of 2023). This is a bureaucratic process and can take several weeks. Once I was approved, I received documentation from the Libyan government that I was now allowed to apply for my visa at the Libyan Embassy in Washington DC. (My specific timing. I applied initially in July, nothing happened with that application. I re-applied on October 15th for the second time. I received the authorization on December 12th. The Libyan Embassy received my passport on December 18th, and I received my passport/visa on December 20th.)
I overnighted the following to the embassy:
- Libyan government authorization
- Hotel reservations (from tour provider)
- Airline reservations (I made on Kayak)
- $160 money order
- Application found on website
- Passport photo
- Return FedEx
I emailed the embassy twice and did not hear back from them. I called them several times with the call going to VM and the box being full. I eventually reached a representative who overviewed the required paperwork and was aware of my government approval (that made me feel confident).
For several years, “tourists” needed to apply for a business visa and pretend they were on business. Today, you can apply for a tourist visa. Please note, on the Libyan Embassy website, it states no visa tourism visas are being processed. This is not accurate.
The embassy processed my visa in two business days and returned it with my return FedEx.
As I mentioned previously, you need to engage a Libyan tour company to get your visa. There are 5 companies that you may hire.
I worked with Sherwes Travel and in short, I would not recommend them. The owner Ibrahim Usta was often non-responsive and provided the bare minimum of information. I view tour companies as product experts who you hire to provide value added information to make your experience richer and better. This was not Ibrahim’s calling card.
I started communicating with Ibrahim in the early summer of 2023. In a WhatsApp group created later with my travel friend, he forgot in the actual thread who we were and when we were planning to travel to Libya. In communications he sometimes would not answer questions, inform us that he did not know, or directed us to others who would know the information. One example would be asking for the agenda three different times (as required by the Embassy) until he finally sent. This seemed to be a heavy lift for him, instead of this being a standard document you would automatically send out to clients. Or being informed by Ibrahim that two of our days on our agenda had been canceled due to security issues (yet I had learned of this 5 days before from a fellow traveler). Much of this information I share in this post is information that he did not share or needed to be asked repeatedly to receive the information.
Here according to the government are the five companies you may contact for assistance in helping attain a visa and arrange your trip.
- Wadi Tidwa
- Sherwes (used by many in the EPS community)
- Wadi Smalos (used by many in the EPS community)
- Soqor Libya
The costs for many things in Libya are quite economical from food to hotels. But, you will find yourself paying a premium. This is a case of limited supply having an advantage. As I noted before, there is no independent travel, and you are forced to use one of the five companies certified by the government.
Hotel. I stayed in a 3 star hotel. The cost was approximately $30
Food. Eating was cheap in Libya, from $1.60 for 3 kilograms of oranges, $3 for a pizza, $1.65 for hummus.
Car. A car rental is $100 a day. And gas, as they say, is cheaper than water. 62 liters were purchased for $1.65!
Leptis Magna. Entry fee is $2.50.
SIM card. For 20 GB it costs $6. (This was an out-of-pocket cost.)
Tips. We had a separate guide for Leptis and Sabratha. Each guide received $20. We tipped a combined $400 for our team, $200 to the guide, $100 to the security agent, and $100 to the government official.
This gives you a sense of costs in Libya.
The x factor is the government/security cost. The travel company must pay a fee for the cost of security and their travel cost. This is approximately 100 Euro a day for security. I am not sure if there are additional fees.
I converted $50 into dinars. At the end of my trip, I still had $35 left. So your out of pockets costs are obviously quite incidental.
COST OF THE TRIP
And what is the actual cost of the trip? I booked the 7 day/6 night Ghadames Tour.
01 pax 2600€
02 Pax 2250€
Visa approval for 125€, plus $160 more to the Libyan Embassy
My travel partner and I negotiated the trip to 2000 Euro each, including are own hotel rooms. This is an combined average of 666 Euro a night.
Sherwes required the payment of cash in Euro/$ in person in Libya.
Your ATM card and credit card will not work in Libya. Please bring cash (US or Euro) which you will be able to exchange. I was able to get over 6 Dinars per $1. Your guide will bring you to exchange money.
Is Libya safe? Anecdotally it seemed incredibly safe, a fully functional state (where I visited). People were friendly and hospitable. But in this example, you will note actual fighting in Tripoli, over 20 dead and 100 injured. And our two-night trip to Ghadames was also cancelled due to militia fighting. So as always, do your research.
For those who have travelled to Mogadishu, you might be familiar with your uniformed AK-wielding security team. Libya has their own version. Throughout our entire trip we were assigned a police officer. He came everywhere with us. But, in addition, wherever we went, we were joined by an additional 1-3 police and/or security officers, sometimes plain clothed sometimes uniformed. Also, throughout our travels, we would be followed by a chase car with security.
Was this necessary? Again, anecdotally, it seemed way over the top. And at times it would be a bit overwhelming with three security agents joining us on walks.
An odd example, I was speaking with a Libyan teenager who spoke English. One of the security agents spoke with the kid in Arabic and admonished him to speak diplomatically with me. In another situation, I was speaking with a local in Martyr’s Square and one of my handlers rushed over to apparently monitor the conversation.
It appears in one sense; the team is in place to smooth out any awkward interactions.
Our core team was three people. In Sherwes case, they hire free lance tour guides. And I pulled 4 Aces. My guide was Badran, who I recommend 110%. After having so many atrocious guides over the last couple of years, my expectations for Libya were low, especially after communicating with Ibrahim at Sherwes.. If you can, request Badran. He was a pleasure to be around and simply got things done. Professional, easy-going, on-time, knowledgeable.
In addition, we had a government official from the Libyan Tourism Ministry accompany us for the trip. The government randomly assigns officials to quality check the tourism experience. Mr. Hatam was another positive addition to our group, being very knowledgeable.
And as I mentioned previously, we had a plain clothes policeman, Khalid, join us for the entire trip. This was in addition to all of the other security members how joined us throughout the trip.
Most people opt to fly in from Tunis, Istanbul, and Cairo to Tripoli (MJI). I will speak to Tunis (TUN) since I flew in from this gateway. These flights range approximately from $100-$300 per segment.
The following airlines you may purchase on OTAs: Tunis Air and Libyan Wings (Hahn Air Systems)
In addition, Afriqiyah Airlines and Ghadames Airlines also fly this approximately one hour flight. I was unable to find these flights on any OTA and they need to be purchased at the airport or through an agent.
Added note: My Tunis Air flight to MJI was canceled. I was later to learn that Tunis Air regularly cancels this flight. I then proceeded to the airport to purchase a later flight on Afriqiyah Airlines. My OTA, MyTrip, upon learning of the cancellation flight was willing to cancel my flight for a Tunis Air fee of $50 and a MyTrip fee of $74. My flight cost $93.
A note about Tunis Airport. They have multiple signs everywhere requiring currency declaration over 5000 ($1600)Tunisian Dinars. I declared my cash at the desk before customs. This was done in 5 minutes and cost 10 Dinars. I was happy that I took this step, since when I departed there were proactive customs officials asking about cash, and I was able to produce my declaration, and I was sent on my way.
In TUN, you can exchange money, use an ATM, and get a SIM card. There is also a Priority Pass Lounge. Tunisia has Bolt (Uber-like). I walked to the exit of the airport and called a Bolt from that location, where I was easily located.
When arriving to MJI, I was met by my guide, Bardan, at the time of stamping my passport who smoothed out the process. Security was concerned about my DSLR camera, but Badran addressed the situation. You can exchange money and get a SIM card in MJI but not at all hours (they were closed for my evening arrival). MJI officials are extra nervous about photos in the airport. There are a couple of places to eat in the airport.
Wi-fi in our hotel was simply not good. Either nor connecting or too weak of a connection. I purchased (when my guide took me to the store) 20 GB for my phone. I was lucky if I used 1 GB. The connection was not good. Between wifi and my phone I was able to upload only 10% of my photos to the cloud.
The Akakus Hotel was OK. Rooms were good sized and clean. But in general everything was difficult, the following did not consistently function; key cards did not work, electricity didn’t work, heat did not work, shower did not work, wifi did not work. The hotel was unable to provide things like shampoo, soap, towels, toilet paper. Breakfast was included, but they couldn’t get their act together here either. Some of the buffet plates went un-refilled and every day they refused to heat the eggs in the serving tray.
This was our original agenda:
- 09/01/2024: Tripoli
- 10/01/2024: Gharyan – Qasr al Haj – Kabaw – Ghadames
- 11/01/2024: Ghadames
- 12/01/2024: Ghadames – Nalut – Tripoli
- 13/01/2024: Leptis Magna
- 14/01/2024: Sabratha – Tripoli
- 15/01/2024: Departure
Nine days before our arrival we were informed that Ghadames was closed due to security issues. This was our new agenda.
- 09/01/2024: Tripoli
- 10/01/2024: Tripoli
- 11/01/2024: Kabaw (this is in the mountains, south of Tripoli)
- 12/01/2024: Tripoli
- 13/01/2024: Tripoli – Leptis Magna
- 14/01/2024: Tripoli – Sabratha
- 15/01/2024: Departure
Please note, your departure flight needs to be in the earlier part of the day. Ours was in the afternoon and we were charged an additional 100 Euro by Sherwes.
Another note, I asked my guides and Google for any monuments or remembrances of Gaddafi. There is nothing to see.
As those who have traveled before in the Muslim/Arab world you will be familiar with the hospitality and warmth. We only had one very minor interaction with one individual who expressed his dislike of the USA. Like any country, learn a couple of words in Arabic. Be diplomatic when taking photos. And in general, for men, do not interact with women.
In Tripoli, you have options of primarily Lebanese, Turkish, and Libyan. The food is good and also a great value. Of course, you can expect to drink a lot of sweet tea (and coffee as well).
Consider visiting sometime between November and March, when daytime temperatures will be in the 60s and 70s F, nighttime cooler, where you would want a jacket. There is not a lot of rain in Tripoli, but you might expect some during these same months. Expect summers to be very hot, especially August.
A fantastic trip. I hope to return to explore more of the country.