TRIPOLI, Libya — Airlines are readying their return to Libya, ports largely shuttered during the fighting are receiving cargos and foreign oil companies that had fled the country's civil war are making tentative steps back.
And waiting eagerly on the doorstep are businessmen looking to get in on what they believe could be a bonanza for investment — an oil-rich nation with large tourism and construction potential that went largely untapped under an eccentric and often closed 42-year-long regime. Slowly, Libya is reopening its doors after seven months of fighting, even as former rebels still hunt for ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
"Definitely, Libya is an El Dorado," said Husni Bey, one of Libya's biggest entrepreneurs. "It has great resources that really allow it to turn around in no time."
The optimism is tempered by the challenges the country faces in overcoming decades of underdevelopment and corruption that helped fuel the uprising against Gadhafi.
In the immediate term, the nascent government has to jump-start the economy even as it tries to establish its authority in a country that remains unstable.
Libya's economy largely ground to a halt when the brutal regime crackdown on a popular uprising was met by international sanctions and opened up a civil war. An embargo by air, land and sea — exempting humanitarian supplies and food — froze most trade. Inventories ran low. Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers fled, abandoning construction sites, bakeries and oil fields.
For the Libyan public, improvement is coming gradually. Food and fuel prices are dropping nearer to prewar levels and waits at gas stations now last hours instead of days.
Links to the outside world are reopening, though NATO is still only granting case-by-case exceptions to its air embargo.
Royal Jordanian resumes daily flights to Benghazi on Thursday, with an aim for flights to the capital Tripoli later this month. Turkish Airlines plans to start before the end of the month. Already, Libya's national carrier offers three daily flights between Tripoli and Benghazi, the country's second largest city.
Hadi Elayeb, whose Horizons Travel Agency made bookings for 17 airlines before the war, said most intend to come back, including Air Malta, which contacted him and said they hope to resume flights soon. He hasn't booked a flight since March 1, but hopes to be back in business by October.
Beyond that, Elayeb — like many — dreams of a boom.
"It's going to be fantastic," he said. "Libya, in good hands, will be even better than Hong Kong."
The reasons many see a gold mine are clear. With a small population of only 6 million, Libya raked in $40 billion last year from oil and gas exports. Long-term possibilities are many, including tourism in a country that boasts pristine Roman ruins and hundreds of miles of undeveloped beaches just across the Mediterranean from Europe.
Gadhafi opened up the country somewhat in the 2000s, but the arcane political system, unpredictable business and visa rules and other restrictions kept much business away.
"Now Libya is a very easy place to work. There's lots of money and it has huge investment needs," said Ahmed Maiteeg, who owns three hotels and was involved in a major construction project.
He said he's already been contacted by about a dozen European companies about partnerships.
Local business leaders are making plans. Bey wants to build a 36,000 square meter (387,500 square foot) mall, and Maiteeg envisages a 35 million euro ($49 million), 50-bed, heart hospital employing Libyan doctors currently working in the U.S.
That earlier Gadhafi opening, however, provides a lesson in investment gone wrong.
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