I had booked return flights from London to Tunis and from Tunis to Tripoli (Mitiga) with Tunisair. When I tried to check in for the flight from Tunis to Tripoli, I found that there had been an incident involving the Tunisair flight at Mitiga on the previous day. Tunisair suspended its flights to Tripoli and that suspension was still in force when I was due to return from Tripoli.
On the way out, I was fortunate to be sufficiently high up the standby waiting list for a flight from Tunis to Djerba that I was able to fly there in the afternoon. I then took a taxi from Djerba airport to the Tunisian border and walked across to the Libyan border. In the meantime, a colleague in Tripoli had managed to arrange for a teacher from Zuwara to meet me and drive me to Tripoli, where I arrived just after 10.00pm. The journey from the Libyan border to Tripoli was uneventful. The road from the Libyan border to near Zawiyah was controlled by Berber militia who did not delay us as the teacher was known to them. From Zawiyah to Tripoli was equally smooth; that is, there were checkpoints but they were not problematic.
For the return journey from Tripoli to Tunis, I had booked a seat on a minibus. When I arrived to catch the minibus, I found that it had been cancelled because the Tunisian authorities had closed the main border crossing at Ras Ajdir. There had been incidents earlier in the week. I was able to find another minibus that was going via the border crossing to the south at Wazin, near Nalut. However, when we arrived there, that border crossing had also been closed by the Tunisian authorities. Nevertheless, after some time, the Tunisian border authorities relented and allowed me, as a non-Libyan, to enter at around 6pm. It took a further 12 hours to reach Tunis by a combination of a taxi and two minibuses.
In summary, I found that the travel arrangements were unreliable but possible. Travelling in a delegation could have been problematic. The situation is changing and direct flights through an alternative carrier might have been fine. In my case, it seemed to be that particular incidents had disrupted travel as opposed to anything to do with Libyan-Tunisian relationships. However, these two incidents (at Mitiga Airport in Tripoli and on the Libyan-Tunisian border) do indicate that problems can escalate rapidly when some of the people in the argument are armed.
I had given up the rental on my apartment in Tunis during the conflict and so I stayed in a hotel for this visit. I paid 50 Libyan Dinars per night, including breakfast, for a modern though quite modest hotel in the centre between Misran Street and Jamal Abdul Nasser Street. However, most hotels seemed to be more expensive than usual; e.g. 100 plus euros.
There is quite a selection of apartments available for rental and so it was relatively easy to find another apartment to rent for 800 Libyan Dinars per month in the centre. However, there is a new problem with rental. Under the previous regime, a rule was introduced which transferred ownership of private property to Libyans who had rented a house for a certain period of time. This rule was introduced retrospectively and so many people who rented out houses/apartments to the domestic market lost their property. This meant that, prior to February, foreign renters could negotiate prices more competitively as they were seen as a safer tenant. Now those people who lost property under that rule are trying to claim it back. Therefore, currently no-one wants to pay 12 months rental in advance in case they get caught out by the original owner taking back the property.
Living conditions within Tripoli
The driving is even poorer than before. Freedom is being interpreted by some as being able to do what you want. There are some police on the streets directing traffic but things seem quite some way from returning to normal.
Taxis are readily available and prices are still cheap. (Petrol is still very cheap.) Minibuses are available locally and to all the major towns.
The shops are open and seemed adequately stocked. Similarly, fast food outlets and restaurants are also open.
Mobile phones are working though getting a new SIM looked as if it might be rather difficult. Old SIMs still work (to which quite a bit of free credit has been added) as do the wireless Internet devices. The capacity of the mobile and Internet networks is variable.
Walking within the central area bounded by the ring road feels safe even in the small streets. Teenagers are finding it hilarious to let off bangers – loud but distinguishable from small arms fire. I was advised not to walk alone much after 10.00pm. Each night, some gunfire could be heard in the area. I was told that there were problems with armed young men drinking alcohol and getting into arguments but I never saw it nor talked to anyone who had.
My understanding of government contracts is based on my meetings with a number of Ministry of Education officials. Although damage to buildings in Tripoli is not severe, other than NATO targets, country-wide many buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Surveys are currently being conducted to prioritise refurbishments and rebuilds for schools and colleges.
Officials have a fear that the country will be invaded by foreign companies who want “to make a quick buck”, providing poor value for money. In the education sector, it has been decided that only companies with a track record who were previously registered with the Ministry will be invited to contract for the early work. The larger contracts are unlikely to be awarded until the new administration is in place in about 8 months time and proper tendering procedures are in place.
As a company registered with the Ministry of Education, Alligan intends to put together a consortium of UK companies to respond to invitations to contract. We have the infrastructure back up and running again in Libya to support other companies wishing to visit and access the market.
Tripoli port is operational. Alligan Libya has a Libyan import licence and may be able to help other UK companies intending to ship goods to Libya.
In spite of being assured that 6 month visas are available, we have only been able to obtain 3 month, single visit and multiple entry visas. No doubt, this will improve over time. Alligan Libya is registered with the Immigration Department in Tripoli and so turnaround times are reasonable; i.e. it takes about two weeks from making the application in Tripoli to the visa being issued in London.
The visa process entails a Libyan company, in our case Alligan Libya, submitting a letter of invitation, along with a new application form, to the Immigration Department. Between 10 days and two weeks later, the Immigration Department sends the approval fax to the Libyan Consulate in London. In London, the process is simpler than before. For example, no bank account information is required on application and nor are fingerprints taken on collection.
One new application form, two photos, passport, a company letter and cash payment should be submitted to the Visa Section within the Libyan Consulate in London in the morning of Monday to Wednesday from 10.00am The passport with visa should be ready for collection on the following day or, at most, the day after. There is no point in trying to submit an application in London unless the approval fax has already been sent from Tripoli. Therefore, it is helpful if the Libyan sponsoring company provides you with the reference number for the approval fax before you make your application in London. We may be able to help with visa applications.
Our bank in Libya is open and I assume that this also applies to most other banks though I have to admit that I did not look. I was encouraged to find, before leaving London, that the Internet access to the Alligan Libya bank accounts was again functional. Withdrawals are supposed to be limited to less than 1,000 Libyan Dinars. However, the international manager who handles the Alligan accounts in our bank is still in post and so I was able to withdraw sufficient funds to meet the commitments that had been outstanding for some time. I made a larger payment by cheque which was well received by a local company that provides services to us; i.e. payment by Libyan company cheque is accepted where there is a trading history as everyone is well aware of the constraints on the availability of cash.
As a temporary measure, a consignment of unused bank notes, of a type which was withdrawn quite some time ago, is in circulation. Previously, notes of that design had been withdrawn as it was suspected that counterfeit copies of these notes were being forged in a sub-Saharan country. I used them throughout the visit without any difficulty. However, these notes may be withdrawn or cancelled at short notice and so it would not be a good idea to hold too many. They are now known as Gaddafi bank notes and are not accepted in Benghazi.
Libya is opening up for business again though the infrastructure has yet to settle down. Representing a UK company, I was well received by new contacts and very warmly received by old ones.
By Graham McAvoy, Managing Director, Alligan . Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Libya Business News