Since Libya accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, turned its back on weapons of mass destruction, the image of Colonel Gaddafi’s heartland as a terrorist state has started to disappear.

Tony Blair visited Libya in 2004, and in the same year, the US Treasury Department lifted its restrictions on US companies doing business there.

The tourism industry in Libya was born again. And with cruiselines constantly on the lookout for new ports and excursions, it wasn’t long before luxury liners began easing into Libyan waters.

Libya has been described as an open-air archaeological museum with dozens of hidden treasures, ruins and remains dotted about its stunning landscape. And the cruiselines are taking full advantage of these unexplored hotspots. Passengers can explore lush lowland hills and striking mountain ranges or enjoy its parched desert vistas, Roman ruins and dazzling blue coastlines – all in the knowledge they got there before the hordes arrive.

Crystal Cruises will be visiting Libya for the first time this year on its World Cruise, calling at Tripoli. An end to visa problems for US citizens means Silversea is now running all its 2006 Libya cruises, which it reports are proving to be best sellers. Oceania, which had to drop four Libyan port calls when the visa problem arose, now has three cruises scheduled for Libya this year.

Silverseas vice-president sales and marketing UK Trudy Redfern said: “We have eight voyages now that include Libya and last year, our first year there, was an astounding success with our clients. The country is a big draw for those with a military or historic interest, because of the World War II connections.”

MSC Cruises was one of the first lines to include Libya and in 2006 MSC Melody’s 11-night Classic Mediterranean and Mediterranean Memories itineraries will call at Tripoli and Tripoli and Banghazi respectively. MSC Sinfoniawill call twice into Tripoli during an 11-night Mediterranean Odyssey cruise.

UK director Peter Pate said: ”We are convinced the ancient historic sites in this country are some of the best preserved in the world and have huge appeal for our repeat clients looking to cruise to places that are veritable treasures of ancient civilisations.”

Meanwhile, Holland America Line has announced Prinsendamwill visit Tripoli in April 2007 during its 56-day Grand Mediterranean and North Africa voyage; and Tripoli and Banghazi in August and October.

Other cruiselines easing into Libyan waters are Clipper, Hebridean Island Cruises, Voyages of Discovery and French small ship specialist Compagnie des Iles du Ponant.

Hebridean Island Cruises sales and marketing director Peter Williams said: “Libya plays an integral part in the exotic and inspirational range of cruise itineraries we offer. Guests are treated to exclusive shore visits such as the World Heritage site in Sabratha or a guided city tour of Tripoli as part of the ‘Jewels of Tripolitania’ itinerary – perfect for soaking up the local atmosphere and gaining a real insider’s knowledge of the country.”

The excursions: the building work in this emerging tourist area doesn’t detract from the stunning classical architecture, statues and mosaics. Cruiselines offer tours of the city including Green Square, the Church of Santa Maria, the 18th-century British Consulate, the Arch of Marcus Aurelius and the mosques and souks of the medina.

Many operate day trips from Tripoli to Al Khums to see Leptis Magna, the world-renowned Roman site with its theatre, forum, baths, sports ground, nymphaeum and temples. The Roman ruins at Sabratha is also an excursion option, with its jawdropping theatre, built in 161-192AD with a wonderful backdrop of columns. Also worth seeing there is the Temple of Liber Pater, the Basilica of Justine, the Capitoleum, the Temple of Serapis, the Temple of Hercules and the Temple of Isis.

The excursions: about 130 miles from the port is the archaeological site of Cyrene, founded in the 6th century by Greek immigrants and now an amazingly well-preserved city giving passengers an insight into ancient North Africa. Mosaics are still visible underfoot and temples, baths and public buildings remain, standing high above lush green countryside.

The Sanctuary and Temple of Apollo in lower Cyrene are also usually included in excursions, as well as Ptolemais, a once-important ancient port reached via the scenic Green Mountains.

In Roman times, this was the administrative centre of the Cyrenaica area and today the ruins stretch over a vast area, much of which is still uncovered. Passengers should look out for the Roman palace, a Byzantine basilica and a gymnasium under which lies a network of water cisterns.

Ships may also offer excursions to the ruined town of Tocra, built in 510BC and some 42 miles northeast of Benghazi. Passengers can pick their way through ruins to see Roman tombs cut into the rock wall, a necropolis, a gymnasium and various ruins of religious buildings, some with visible inscriptions.

The excursions: at the beginning of World War II, Libya was an Italian colony and Tobruk became the site of a decisive battle. In January 1941, it was captured by the Australians and was besieged and bombed by the Germans until the British stepped in. It then fell to the Germans in 1942 but was recaptured by the British in November in an offensive launched from El Alamein. It was the turning point of the war in north Africa.

There is now a thriving industry in all things related to the war in this area, with visitors worldwide making pilgrimages to the site where the Desert Rats fought some of their bloodiest battles. So excursions to this city centre on historically significant sites such as the Knightsbridge, Commonwealth and German war cemeteries. The latter has massive stone walls and round towers that look out over the city.

Sightseers also make a beeline for the remains of the tragic Lady Be Goodaircraft, the B-24 Bomber discovered in the Libyan desert 16 years after it lost its way back from a World War II mission to Naples in 1943.

The aircraft was found in 1959 by an oil exploration team, preserved by the desert environment.