By Salah Sarrar
TRIPOLI, Mar 28 (Reuters) Thousands of Western visitors are flooding into Libya to view a solar eclipse due tomorrow in the largest tourist event ever held in the long-isolated north African country, officials said.
The big oil exporting country hopes the influx of foreigners to remote viewing stations in its spectacular desert outback will boost a fledgling tourist industry that is anticipating a boom as a thaw in ties with the West erodes years of isolation.
Deputy Tourism Minister Arebi Mazoz told Reuters Libya had issued visas to 7,000 tourists from 53 nationalities, as well as a number of scientists from the US National Aeronautics Space Administration who would help Libyan experts study the eclipse.
''The largest team are Americans with 1,500 persons, the UK with 1,264, Germany with 537, and in addition we have visitors from Austria, Spain and Italy,'' Arebi said.
Ahmed Aziz, head of the tourism ministry's information department, said it would be the largest and biggest event in the history of Libyan tourism.
''All security and health facilities are available to tourists at the four desert camps set up for them,'' he said.
Four private firms have been commissioned to provide on-site water tanks, tents, washrooms, food, drink, transport for the visitors, most of whom are paying the equivalent of at least 2,000 euros each for a four-day stay.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun and its shadow is cast on earth. tomorrow's eclipse will be visible in Brazil, west and north Africa and central Asia.
The longest view of the eclipse - four minutes and seven seconds - will be visible at Libya's Wao Namus settlement near the Chadian border 2,000 km south of Tripoli.
Others will go to Jalo oasis 500 km south of Benghazi where the eclipse will last for four minutes and three seconds, and to Albordi close to the Egyptian border.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS Libya cast off more than a decade of international ostracism in 2003 when it accepted responsibility and began paying compensation for the bombing of airliners over Scotland and Niger in 1988 and 1989.
The country hopes the eclipse event will stir interest in its other attractions -- Roman and Greek ruins, prehistoric desert sites and a fledgling diving sector along its unspoiled 1,250 mile Mediterranean desert coastline.
Libya has a long way to go to catch up with north African tourism hotspots Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, all of which attract six million tourists or more a year. By some estimates Libya attracts less than half a million tourists annually.
But the country, which has forged agreements with European firms for the construction of tourism complexes on the coast, hopes it has an edge on its neighbours because its isolation may have lent it an element of mystery.
The World Travel and Tourism Council, a forum of business leaders in international tourism, said in a 2004 study Libyan tourism industry provided 25,649 jobs and generated 1.6 per cent of national wealth as measured by gross domestic product.
They found the sector helped support a total of 110,925 jobs in the wider economy, equivalent to one in every 10 jobs.
Total demand for travel and tourism in Libya was expected to grow by an annual average of six per cent in the years to 2014.
REUTERS DKS BS1611