For those flying from German and Austrian hubs, the first sight in Albania is usually the Dajati Mountains in Tirana. The shadow that looms over the capital perfectly matches the mystery that shrouds the country in most minds.
After taking power during World War II, Enver Hoxha – whose authoritarian rule in Albania lasted from 1944 until his death in 1985 – closed the country for four decades, banning travel and religion. More than 500,000 concrete bunkers sprang up from his madness on the country’s beaches, mountains and plains, many remaining to this day.
This long and haunted isolation, related to the vicious wars that swept through the Western Balkans in the 1990s, has helped turn Albania into one of the least known and most mysterious countries in Europe.
This means that for the uninitiated, the images that come to mind arise from its horrific communist past. But while corruption and criminality can be found as in all European countries, Albania is still one of the last obscure corners of Europe.
The Cursed Mountains in the north offer hikers and mountaineers one of the continent’s last wildernesses. Golden sandy beaches stretch down the Adriatic and Ionian coasts to the town of Saranda, which sits on the Greek island of Corfu. In this southern region flows one of Europe’s last wild rivers, the Bjosa, soon to be protected within a national park.
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Albania is now urging visitors to discover not only these stunning landscapes, but also the country’s Mediterranean-Balkan hybrid cuisine – with specialties such as tave kosi or ferges – which can be eaten by more than 250 ecotourism hosts, which the government is keen to promote. .
An abundance of Greek, Roman and Ottoman ruins and archaeological sites also punctuate the country, such as the UNESCO-listed Butrint National Park, the Ottoman-era city of Berat, or the ancient city of Apollonia.
A bonus for tourists, says Gazi Haxia, CEO of travel agency Landways, which has been enthusiastically promoting his country’s tourism potential for more than two decades, is that all these treasures can be enjoyed without struggling through the crowds.
“Albania is still relatively unknown,” boasts Haxia. “We are not overrun by mass tourism, so visitors can still enjoy unspoiled natural beauty, unique culture and authentic experiences.”
A warm welcome
However, some are beginning to wonder how long this will last as tourist numbers begin to rise.
The pandemic gave Albania a leg up. Neighboring tourism stars were hit hard by Covid. Croatia, whose sparkling Adriatic coastline dominates tourist flows to this south-eastern corner of Europe, saw visitor numbers drop by 68% in 2020, with the ban helping travel. Montenegro fared even worse, as tourist flows fell by 83%.
Soft sanctions saw Albania trim pullbacks to 59%, and numbers have since rebounded. Last year came a record 7.5 million.
“The recovery has been faster and stronger than expected,” says Haxia. However, Covid-19 restrictions in Asia, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the economic slowdown in Europe have made it difficult to measure, he says, and expects another record in 2023.
On top of the country’s natural and historical treasures, Albanians’ hospitality and eagerness to share their culture and traditions are important selling points, he claims.
Tolerance and hospitality are the basis of the tradition called “Besa”. Albania’s proudest point is that – a predominantly Muslim country – it was the only one in Europe with a larger Jewish population in 1945 than in 1939.
Haxia notes that his clients, who mostly come from European states like Germany, Britain and Italy, also appreciate the low cost of travel to Albania. Increasingly, he adds, travelers from the Americas and Asia are discovering the tiny country perched on the edge of the Ionian Sea from the heel of an Italian boot.
The potential for tourism is so significant that Prime Minister Edi Rama dreams of making the country the region’s “tourism champion” by the end of the decade.
One of the poorest countries in Europe, Albania’s emerging economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and mining. But tourism is seen as a key driver of modern economic development.
Pre-pandemic, the $2.3 billion or so sector constituted close to 16% of GDP brought in annually. Rama hopes that a strong government push will help double that share.
The progress is clear to see. Over the past decades, garbage heaps have been cleared in cities and along roadsides. Transport infrastructure is being expanded and upgraded. Hotels and resorts are growing after being encouraged by tax breaks.
“But there is still a lot to do,” Haxia pointed out. “The quality of service and infrastructure is challenging, especially in rural areas.”
Indeed, although Albania’s transport infrastructure has improved significantly over the past two decades, significant gaps remain.
A second international airport opened in 2021 in the northern city of Kukes, with seasonal flights connecting it to Germany, Austria and Turkey, reaching the Albanian Riviera in the south requires either a five-hour drive from Tirana or a flight to Corfu. Then a boat.
A third airport under construction near the city of Vlore should help. “It was difficult for tourists to get to Albania in the past,” Tourism and Environment Minister Mirela Kumbaro told DW, “but all infrastructure investments have been made to serve tourism.”
The government is also working with investors to build several large resorts. Announcing a €2-billion deal with the UAE’s Eagle Hills Development Company in January, Rama branded the project to transform the port city of Durres “a locomotive” to spur economic development and allow Albania to compete in the international tourism market.
But at the same time, such plans are mired in controversy. The amount of money laundered through the system is seen as a corruption risk, and claims of delays and lax controls are not uncommon.
The danger posed by such behemoths moving forward in Albania’s virgin regions is obvious if regulators look the other way. Europe’s Mediterranean coast suffers from unsustainable development, environmental damage, and overtourism.
Although an enthusiastic supporter of the need for further development of the tourism sector, Haxia recognizes the need to tread carefully.
“Government should increase access, but also promote sustainable tourism practices and training,” he suggested. “We need to preserve the country’s natural and cultural heritage for future generations.”
And even as her government rushes to build motorways, airports and resorts, Kumbaro says this is really her remit. It is no coincidence, he stressed, that his ministry is responsible for both tourism and the environment.
“Last year we had 7.5 million tourists,” she says. “But we don’t plan to increase the numbers. Instead, we target tourists who spend and empower the development of sustainable tourism.”