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Sat 31 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Untapped potential

Libya offers incredible opportunity - but only the bold need apply.

Untapped potential
Ancient berber granary in Libya.

Libya offers incredible opportunity - but only the bold need apply.

Adevelopment frenzy is underway in Libya. The oil-and-gas-rich-country has been largely unaffected by the global economic crisis, and is busy burying its fortunes into infrastructural and economic development. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country's economy could grow as much as 5.4% this year.

"Libya is a growing market and from our experience over the last two years, it is a market with huge potential. The government is keen on investing heavily in all of its infrastructure, from roads to hotels and schools, and that brings excellent opportunities for architectural and design companies," noted Isabel Pintado, head of the interior design, Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ).

While there is opportunity in the office and retail segments, it is Libya's massively under-developed tourism industry that could represent a potential goldmine. "Libya offers a niche market for tourism that is based on historic and cultural interest. It has one of the world's best examples of Roman architecture, which has been preserved due to isolation from high impact tourism," said Margaret Palmer, design director, Wilson Associates, Abu Dhabi.

Hotel chains from around the world are already queuing up to make their move. Turkish hospitality group, Rixos Hotels, opened the 120-room Rixos Al Nisr in Tripoli in March. Marriott is also planning its Libya debut, with a 270-room hotel that is due to open in 2011.

Meanwhile, Wilson Associates is working on an InterContinental in Tripoli, and GAJ is working with the Libyan government on a seven-star hotel, also in Tripoli. The property is nearing completion and will be set amongst a mixed-use development in the Regatta area of the city. "Another project that is in the final design stage is a mixed-use development with a strong office component located a few kilometres southwest of Tripoli," Pintado revealed.

Yet another mixed-use project on the cards is Medina Tower, a joint venture between Mediterranean Investments Holding (MIH), IHI, which is a sister company of the Corinthia Group, and the Libyan Economic Development Real Estate Company, a sovereign wealth fund.

The 40-storey, mixed-use Medina Tower will offer 242 apartments, 23,000m² of office space, 20,000m² of retail space, a conference and exhibition centre and four floors of underground parking. Construction will commence shortly and is expected to be completed within four years.

MIH is a joint venture between the Kuwaiti National Real Estate Company and Corinthia, a Maltese company with a long-standing relationship with Libya. "Corinthia has been operating in Libya for over 25 years, initially in the catering business, where it provided meals for thousands of workers on rigs and oil fields, as well as airline catering," explained Reuben Xuereb, managing director of MIH.

"When the new Tripoli airport was inaugurated, Corinthia was also responsible for the duty free shops and other facilities at the airport. Later on in 1999, Corinthia took a bold decision to invest in and develop what became the first and only five-star hotel in Tripoli."

Corinthia's second Libyan venture, as part of MIH, was Palm City, a residential development launched in 2006. "In just four years, a flat, 170,000m² plot of land has been transformed into a village comprising 413 residential units and a piazza in the heart of the village that has become the place for tenants to meet and shop for their daily needs, as well as enjoy the services of a beauty salon, a bank, a large supermarket, a café, a laundry and a kids play area."

Health and leisure facilities include a large clubhouse with an indoor pool, spa, squash court, gym, kids play area, four tennis courts and a five-a-side football pitch. The development also offers a private beach and a Movida fine-dining restaurant.

"Clearly, Corinthia has believed in what Libya has to offer for decades and not just in recent years. This is a country that boasts numerous archeological and World Heritage sites, enjoying 2,000km of coastline on the Mediterranean sea, the finest Sahara desert, and the beautiful Cyrene and Green mountains, as well as the very distinct Acacus mountains.

"Add to that an abundance of natural resources and a country that has not spent much over the last 30 years, and Libya provides some very interesting opportunities for investment, in a wide ranging spectrum of industries, not least in real estate and tourism."

Naturally, a market in such early stages of development also presents significant challenges, GAJ's Pintado pointed out. "Libya has only recently started developing its infrastructure so you're not only facing physical obstacles in terms of supporting services to your project, but also evolving policies and regulations. However, those challenges that we encounter also present opportunities for GAJ. As consultants we are able to provide additional support in an advisory capacity, or identify other design opportunities beyond our project.

"A close relationship with your client is essential when working in Libya, as are regular site visits and close communications. Face-to-face discussions are crucial, but be mindful that feedback usually takes longer than you're perhaps used to," she warned.

When it comes to interior design, Libya remains "under developed and largely ethnic", according to Wilson Associates' Palmer. But as people begin to travel more widely, this is changing rapidly, and demand for high-quality design in Libya is undeniably on the up.

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