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March 17, 2004 -- On the same day in February when President Bush announced the lifting of the US ban on travel to Libya (officially named the Great Socialist Peoples Libyan Arab Jamahiriya), tour operators immediately got to work, and now it's possible to travel there legally as part of any of the following group tours. Not at budget prices, but legal nonetheless.

The first American tour group into Libya since the lifting of restrictions will be Mountain Travel Sobek, which has a group departing April 23, 2004. (The Brits beat them by about a month, see below for details.)

Costing $4,150 for land-only, it's not cheap, but it will be first. Limited to 15 participants, the journey takes you from Paris, where it originates, to Tripoli and then to Ghat in the southern part of Libya. After camping out in the Akakus area, you trek for five days through the desert, accompanied by Tuareg guides and a train of camels to carry your gear. In addition to huge sand dunes and rock formations, you'll see some rarely viewed rock engravings. On Day 10, you drive back to Ghat, the next day flying to Tripoli, the capital, departing two days later back to Paris. The trip will be led by Richard Bangs, co-founder of the company. If you wish, you can extend the trip a few days to take in some of the best Roman ruins outside Italy, especially those of the magnificent Leptis Magna and Sabratha, restored only in the 1920s. For details, contact Mountain Travel Sobek at www.mtsobek.com, e-mail info@mtsobek.com or by phoning 888/MTSOBEK (same as 888/687-6235).

Our old friends at the Adventure Center have trips starting as early as March 21, 2004, but that one ("Lost Cities of the Roman Empire") is sold out already. Of more immediate interest are an 8-day venture called "Highlights of Libya," priced from $1,210 (land-only). Departures are April 24, October 16 and December 23 this year, and February 12 in 2005. Besides the capital city of Tripoli, you visit Leptis Magna and a Berber village where you stay in a troglodyte dwelling near the cliff top village of Tormisa. You then fly to Benghazi in eastern Libya and visit ruins and two museums there, as well as the Greek cities of Cyrene and Apollonia. Back in Tripoli, you explore the old town and souks. Breakfasts are included in the package as well as your lodging, internal flights, air-conditioned minibus and more. Maximum group size is 16, they say.

A second trip from Adventure Center is the "Libyan Desert Explorer," 15 days, from $2,035 (land-only). You have many of the activities described above (but not the trip to Benghazi), then head out into the desert, where you spend three days with four-wheel drive vehicles exploring the Sahara, camping under the stars and traversing the "Sand Sea" to Ghadames, the "Pearl of the Sahara." You spend four nights in hotels, one night in the troglodyte lodge, one night in a villa, eight nights camping. Full board is provided while camping, breakfast only while staying in hotels. Maximum group size is 16 persons.. Departures October 9, November 13 and December 18 in 2004, February 12 in 2005.

Adventure Center has two other journeys, one being The Lost Cities of the Roman Empire referred to above, 15 days in Libya and Tunisia, with open space on its October departure in 2004 and departures in January, February and March of 2005. The cost is from $1,610, land-only. Lastly, there's a long (four weeks) North Africa trip across Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, at just $1,890. Departures can be had in either direction, spaces still available on trips scheduled for late 2004 and 2005.

Contact Adventure Center at www.adventurecenter.com or by phoning 800/228-8747 or 510/654-1879, fax 510/654-4200.

A Few Cautionary Remarks

Libya is one of those places where it is easier to travel with a group rather than independently. After years of isolation, the government remains suspicious of solo travelers, and it's quite persnickety about travel documents. You must have the personal information in your passport translated into Arabic, for instance, before they will even open it. Naturally, your tour operator should do this for you, so be sure to ask. Since neither the US nor Libya has diplomatic offices established in one another's countries, visas must be obtained in a third country (such as Canada or European countries). You can contact a private company like Travel Documents Systems (www.traveldocs.com) to assist you with your paperwork, especially if you're attempting independent travel. The company has offices in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

Despite the rescinding of the travel ban, there are still restrictions on US citizens traveling there. You can't use your credit cards or US bank checks in Libya, so plan on using cold, hard cash (yes, US dollars are fine). From the Libyan point of view, be sure not to bring in any alcohol or non-medicinal drugs. For more details, we strongly encourage you to read the State Department's Consular Information Sheet on Liya at http://travel.state.gov/libya.html.

The trips above are land only, but you can easily fly directly to Libya. A quick search of www.orbitz.com revealed many flights, including the cheapest, on Delta and Tunis Air, costing $1,503 from New York to Tripoli and back. This involves two stops going, and three stops returning. There are no non-stops, of course, but flights with only one stop seemed to take as long or longer, and cost as much as $2,891 (e.g., Delta and KLM, via Amsterdam).

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