Albania aims at elite ecotourism

Albania, one of the fastest growing travel destinations in Europe, will focus on alternative rather than mass tourism, which government officials hope will help it stand out from the competition. The tiny Balkan state, once hermetically sealed off from the outside world, has gained popularity thanks to a reputation that is increasingly seen as trendy and exotic. It had 7.5 million visitors last year, more than double its numbers from its record 6.4 million in 2019.

“This is a different country compared to what it was 10 years ago,” says Albanian Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro, noting that the country has more than made up for the losses suffered since the Covid-19 outbreak. “Things are changing so fast… Albania 2023 is full of positive energy.”

The travel recovery is expected to pick up on pent-up demand from the pandemic and the appeal of a short-haul destination that offers incredible value for money.

But Cumbaro, an academic before she entered politics, says the increase in inflows will not be part of the tourism strategy envisaged for the future. Instead, plans are being made to diversify a sector considered key to Albania’s economic growth..

Abandoning the traditional sun and sea model offered by its Mediterranean neighbors, officials want to rebrand Albania as a high-end “quality” destination, targeting new markets. “We made some mistakes in the 1990s,” she told The Guardian, referring to the tumultuous transition from Stalinist dictatorship to democracy. “You can’t learn without making mistakes: they are part of the process.”

Viosa river landscape
Place for tourists and rafters. Photo credit: imageBROKER/Alamy

She points to the “ugly hotels and buildings” sprouted by the uncontrolled construction of first-class resorts along the Albanian Riviera in the wake of the chaotic aftermath of communism, such as Saranda, a coastal city across from Corfu.

“As tourism and environment minister, I have a sort of checks and balances (in my role),” she says. “I can be proud that we have 7.5 million tourists, but to be honest, I don’t ask for more. I ask for quality so that people stay longer than the average of three or four nights and come all year round. The beaches are not unique. What is unique (in the country) is virginity, untouched, unexplored.

Thus, according to her, what will be promoted is not complex beach holidays, but agritourism and ecotourism – more evenly distributed and based on Albania’s impressively diverse landscape of mountains, forests and coastline.

“We want tourism to be environmentally friendly, responsible and sustainable. We don’t want tourism to be concentrated only in certain areas, but tourism that focuses on heritage, gastronomy, hiking, rafting, nature… there are so many small farms where people can go and enjoy it all.”

The hinterland of Albania and the northern Alpine region, where the Cursed Mountains are located, offer unrivaled potential for agri- and ecotourism. International development agencies have contributed to a growing effort to develop tourism that can enrich areas that remain among the poorest in Europe.

Last week, attention was drawn to the 273-kilometer Vjosa River, often referred to as “Europe’s last wild river”, following a pledge by Prime Minister Edi Rama to turn the basin that spans the river and its tributaries into a new national park – the first of its kind in Europe. – to promote the development of tourism. Cumbaro cited the need to revitalize villages through rural tourism, announcing that she would apply for the entire Vjosa Basin to become a “UNESCO Biosphere Reserve”.

Home to over 1,000 animal and plant species, the Vjosa River, which flows unimpeded and unhindered through the country from its source in Greece, is a symbol of the ecological paradise that Albania has allowed to become in no small part due to the paranoia of Enver Hoxha. , a dictator who ruled Shkiperia – the country of the eagle – for more than 40 years.

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Less than thirty years have passed since Albania emerged from Stalinist rule. No other member of the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe has suffered such repression or isolation.

Now 56, Cumbaro has lived most of her early life under a regime she remembers well. At the time, tourism was only allowed for avowed Marxist-Leninists and was strictly controlled by Albturist, a state-owned travel agency tasked with developing the sector after Hoxha’s death in 1985. she recalls. “They were in (communist) “friendship associations.” But even then, Albturist was under the control of the Sigurimi secret police.

Hot springs in the Langaritsa canyon, on the banks of the Vyosa river.
Hot springs in the Langaritsa canyon, on the banks of the Vyosa river. Photo: agefotostock/Alamy

Cameras were banned, as were miniskirts and beards – men who entered Albania during Hoxha’s lifetime were forced to shave their chins at the border, and their hair was considered too long.

Later, as the state began to cautiously reopen, bus services began from Athens, mainly catering to Greeks with relatives living in minority communities in the south. Other tourists were allowed but were screened before visas were issued.

The tours only went as far as Tirana, the capital, where diners stayed in drab Soviet-era hotels with staff passing desperate notes under plates as they served tables.

Travel further north, into the dirt-poor highlands, was forbidden. The landfill for political prisoners, whose numbers grew as Albania gradually separated from other communist countries, was the site of infamous hard labor camps. “Everything was forbidden, even religion,” says Cumbaro, recalling how her grandmother was “too scared” to speak openly about her faith.

“For me, tourism is emancipation. It opens doors for others and that’s great.”

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