Exclusive interview with the leading hotel in Libya: Al Waddan Hotel Tripoli
|Monday, 12 August 2013 00:00|
Interview with Anas M. Tarsin, General Manager of Al Waddan Hotel Tripoli
What is your overall assessment of the tourism sector in Libya?
Right now as far as tourism is concerned, with the situation here in Libya, tourism is more of a vision. There are endless amounts of tourism potential here in Libya. Strategically Libya is in North Africa, just below Europe, it is facing Italy and southern France. Europeans would find no better place only an hour or an hour and a half away to come to than Libya.
The ruins that we have, both Greek and Roman, are untouched and beautiful. There are so many things to visit; there is the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, the ancient artefacts and ruins and the Sahara desert which is also beautiful. There are also the Green Mountains in the east. I really do think that within the next 5 to 10 years Libya will be a hot spot for tourism in the world.
How much investment would you estimate that Libya needs to upgrade its tourism sector?
As you know, during the Gaddafi regime, there were billions of dollars invested in tourism. I think the problem is not reinvesting, but restructuring old contracts with foreign and government investment here to move forward.
There is going to be the InterContinental hotel next door to us and there is another hotel about a mile away from here that may be a Hyatt Regency hotel. I think that if they were to invest over the next 5 years an amount of about 2 billion dollars they will be able to see excellent returns in the near future.
In terms of business tourism, what is so attractive about Libya? We see many business people come to Libya for conferences; sometimes you can't even get a room in a hotel.
Well Libya is very attractive but the hotels are very numbered, they were monopolised during the Gaddafi regime. So if you want a 4 or 5 star business hotel, you can count them on one hand. Also, prices were extremely high. Now in the near future, with the Ministry of Tourism and different government organisations there are plans to have hundreds of 4 or 5 star hotels. There are groups such as Sheraton, IHG, Hilton and Kempinski etc. that are extremely interested in coming to Libya.
Could you elaborate on the business opportunities here, why are the business travellers coming to Libya in such numbers?
Most of it is a lot of government consulting and government contracts for infrastructure and natural resources. Libya is a very rich and viable country for a lot of different sectors.
Recently, I met a gentleman here that had a study that said that a 50km wide solar section here could give enough energy for Italy to light up 365 days a year. There are so many different sectors; Libya is rich not only in oil and gas but also in tourism. The coast of Libya is immense. There are old civilisations in the western Nafusa Mountains that date back to 3000B.C.
There are UNESCO sites in Ghadames and Sabratha, and there are so many beautiful cities within Libya. For business tourists looking for opportunities, Libya is a country that is virgin so to speak, from infrastructure all the way up, so there are definitely opportunities here for someone to make a deal.
Do you feel that Libya is a great destination?
Definitely, 100%. Libya could be one of the greatest destinations in the world not only for business but also strategically. We are in the centre of the globe, the weather is beautiful, we have plenty of beach and sand and the population is so small that Libya could become more beautiful than Dubai or Qatar or the gulf area. It has a lot of potential.
There is a statistic that says Libya needs around 100,000 hotel rooms, what is your opinion?
Sure, that could be true.
Can you tell us a bit about Al Waddan Hotel? It is the oldest hotel in Libya.
Yes, Al Waddan Hotel is the oldest hotel in Libya. It was built back in the 1930s. Libya held a Grand Prix in the 1930s, but when people came from Europe and the west they had no place to stay and so Al Waddan Hotel and Casino was built. The likes of Sophia Loren had a suite here, Marilyn Monroe stayed here, Mohammed Ali was here, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra etc. they all stayed here in the 50s and 60s.
General Balbo had a war room downstairs in the basement with a beautiful cinema. No one was allowed in, Libyan or otherwise if they weren't wearing a blazer and tie. It was a fruitful time for Libyans, it was beautiful.
Before, there was a bridge behind here that used to hit the shore directly across the street. There are old photos of Al Waddan where the streets looked like they were mopped clean, it was so beautiful.
We want to bring this luxury back from history. This is a boutique hotel and we would like to bring back that pleasant life and spirit that it had before.
Let's talk about the future, what are your expansion plans?
As far as the future is concerned for Al Waddan, we hope to turn it into a 6 star boutique hotel. It is a 90 room hotel with large grounds. We are planning on opening 4 new restaurants on the terrace by the swimming pool.
We also want to open up the theatre on the west side of the hotel within the next 2 years. We also have a state of the art fitness and spa centre opening soon. There will be a sushi and teppanyaki restaurant, a steak and seafood restaurant; we also are looking into opening some kind of Latin restaurant and obviously a Turkish or Lebanese restaurant for eastern cuisine.
Do you have space for such expansion?
Definitely. If you have been on the grounds here at Al Waddan, we have about 4 hectares of land. From the back to where the pool is, it stretches out quite far and there is definitely room for 3 or 4 food outlets. We want to turn Al Waddan back into a business hub for the capital and also a leisure hub for the locals and for people that are travelling on short trips into Libya.
What are some of the challenges you are facing at the moment in the hotel industry?
The main challenge right now is training the locals. We are trying to integrate the English language with lessons for the locals. I really find it hard to want to bring in so many foreign expats to come and work in the hotel industry but they have the experience that most of the Libyan market lacks.
We have to teach a new generation here. The class of 2014 has at least 500 people graduating into the hospitality industry. Hopefully with the help of government and multinational companies in the hospitality sector, we can train and employ the locals and not expats.
Tripoli has other 5 star hotels, how does Al Waddan stand out?
We are more of an exclusive hotel. Our idea is for the customer to be the nucleus. We aim to provide whatever the customer wants. We are not as fast paced as the larger hotels as we are a boutique hotel. We pay attention to detail and to the customer, attending to their business and leisure needs.
We want to raise the bar in terms of quality, food, amenities etc. We are raising the bar slowly but surely. We are training the Libyan staff that we have and they are more than eager to learn. We are bringing expats from the Philippines and other regions to help train the local workforce.
What kind of feedback do you get from your clients? What do they most like about this hotel?
They love the serenity of this hotel. Sitting in the open space of the coffee shop is reminiscent of the old houses of Tripoli. The hotel is a little more exclusive and private, there are nooks and areas in the hotel and grounds that you can enjoy and where you can be a bit more private.
We are probably the only 4 to 5 star hotel in Libya where you can walk out of the door and be in the middle of the city. The other hotels such as Corinthia, Radisson and Rixos are very secluded and you would need a taxi to get to the city.
What is so beautiful about the Al Waddan is that you can walk out of the door and be in the bustling district of Dahra. You can walk less than 0.5 km and be in Algeria Square or 0.75 km to be in Martyr Square, so everything is very close by foot. You can blend in with the local population and feel safe which is great.
Once the Intercontinental Hotel is fully operational do you think it will be a challenge for you as your competition?
No, it won't, it is a totally different business. Al Waddan is going to be more of a luxury boutique hotel in the future with the plans that we have. Intercontinental Hotel is our big brother, being managed by IHG here, before and a little after the revolution. We are a family. The clients that we are trying to capture are different to those of the large Intercontinental that is going to be opened here by 2014.
As you have the perspective of an outsider, having grown up abroad, what is your vision of Libya?
I think that from this point we are moving forward. If Libya reintegrates itself into the global village and locally integrates the Libyan people and youth, I think Libya will prove to be a very successful and prosperous country.
The government trying to establish itself and this is also a challenge. I think that if the people sit back and give the government a chance to exist and be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem, I can see Libya being a dynamic location in the world.
Do you feel that there is an increasing number of tourists year on year since 2011?
Since 2011 we have exceeded numbers this year from last, which is great. In terms of international companies coming back here and embassies really feeling that they can bring in their multinational companies here to work, there is still heavy enquiry and business deals going back and forth and hotels are very busy.
I think we will do better next year and the following years. Things are on the up in Libya. Even if you come here for a week or two, what you see in the media isn't really what you see on the ground. It sounds like a really dangerous place but if you come to one of the hotels you would feel like you were somewhere in Europe and you would feel fine.
Would you be able to estimate the year on year growth of the hotel industry?
I would say probably about 3% at the moment with the current situation.
Is it likely to accelerate in the future?
I am hoping so. It would go parallel with what is happening with the government.
Economic growth is predicted to be 19% in Libya this year...
Well as soon as the government can fix a lot of the problems within the tourism industry and hotels start being built, I think there will be a domino effect where you will see many international hotels and companies coming back.
What can the government fix in the tourism industry?
Psychologically I think that if the cranes started moving and the hotels and past contracts were honoured, and if we can get things moving, I think it would change the mentality of the people a lot.
When large construction companies come in there are smaller companies created, and jobs are created. I think if the youth have the opportunity to open up construction companies and to import and export.