Albania, sealed off for decades, and only open to visitors for the last 20 years, is trying to promote itself as a tourist destination. But it is not well known, and is by no means a tourist hotspot, even if visitor numbers are climbing.
“Albania is not yet on the radar, but with its stunning coast, its history, its ancient ruins, his mountains and its unspoiled nature mean that it has a lot of potential,“ says Alexander Wittwer, since January 2013 the Swiss ambassador in Tirana.
Albania may have potential, but it also has a bad reputation: it is associated with corruption, criminality and blood feuds. No wonder that for the moment it doesn’t feature among the holiday destinations offered by the two big Swiss travel agents Kuoni and Hotelplan.
When asked why, they say there is little demand. Most visitors go on special hiking, cultural or educational tours. Nevertheless, the number of Swiss visiting Albania has risen from about 6,000 in 2005 to more than 40,000 last year.
The biggest rise in visitors are those from its neighbors, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro. But tourists from Greece, Italy, Germany, Poland and other countries can also be seen, usually in tour groups. Occasionally a cruise liner anchors on the Albanian Riviera. But individual travellers are few and far between, even if the Lonely Planet guidebook company named Albania as a top tourist destination in 2011.
Foreign Visitors to Albania
Dangerous potholes and kind people
Anyone wanting to explore the country by public transport needs their share of patience, but learns a lot about the way people live. There are few railway lines and the trains are very slow. There is quite an extensive bus and minibus network, but timetables are not always available. And car drivers are faced with bumpy roads full of potholes, especially on the cross-country routes. Even the pavements are full of lurking dangers: open gullies and unprotected building sites await the unwary pedestrian.
But such problems are quickly forgotten in the face of the kind, helpful and curious people, who are happy to talk to foreign visitors. You meet herdsmen with their cows, sheep or goats, fishermen auctioning their catch at the edge of the road, elderly people ploughing by hand, or leading their mules or donkeys laden with wood, straw and much else. Food is good and cheap, hotels as a rule clean and inexpensive, and the rivers and mountains are magical.
Mercedes and concrete
Something that strikes every new visitor to Albania is the large number of Mercedes, which are omnipresent in the towns and villages. It is impossible not to wonder who can afford such an expensive car in one of the poorest countries of Europe, and how many of them are perhaps stolen. It’s as if people have an immense urge to catch up – in the forty years of the old regime under Enver Hoxha all private transport was forbidden.
Something else that is impossible to miss are the concrete bunkers of various sizes, which the regime put up all over the country in the 1970s and 80s for fear of invaders. These relicts of the Cold War can be found on beaches, in the mountains or among houses – there are said to have been a hundred thousand of them in all.
There’s plenty of concrete being used today: Albania looks like one huge building site. Roads and motorways are being constructed everywhere, while houses are shooting up along the coast and in the cities. But not all of them get completed, whether because the money runs out, or because the illegal work is halted by the government. The result is that the countryside is disfigured by countless ugly shells of buildings.
The natural surroundings are also spoiled by rubbish dumped in picturesque spots: plastic bags and trash of all sorts is to be found by rivers, in fields, at the back of houses. And when the wind is in the wrong direction, the stink coming from burning rubbish dumps forces the guest to close his hotel window.
The two countries have had diplomatic relations since 1921. Switzerland has had a head of mission in Tirana since 1991.
The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) have an annual budget of about CHF13 million ($13.6 million) for their programmes in Albania.
Economic relations are at a low level: Swiss exports to Albania in 2011 were worth CHF36 million, and imports CHF3 million.
There are 69 Swiss nationals registered in Albania. Some 200,000 Albanians from Kosovo live in Switzerland, but only about 1,000 from Albania.
A business under construction
The Albanian tourism agency is also still in the process of construction, as government spokesman Enton Derraj admits. For two years he was an advisor at the ministry of tourism.
“Our biggest problem is waste management. All foreigners mention this. We are working on our waste disposal system and every year we conduct anti-litter campaigns. Basically, it’s not to do with the system or the infrastructure, but with mentalities. It will take time to raise people’s awareness of the issue.”
To promote itself as a tourist destination, over the past few years the country has been investing in building and improving the infrastructure in tourist areas: road building, water supply, health. In some cases it has received help from abroad.
Two years ago a law on spatial planning was passed, aimed at preventing illegal building such as had taken place on a grand scale in coastal cities like Saranda, Durres and Vlora. Major projects like holiday resorts must now get the approval of the national planning commission.
“We want to avoid seeing the entire coast built up, in the way that happened in Montenegro, for example.”
No mass tourism
Derraj maintains that Albania is not looking for mass tourism.
“It’s true that we want to develop beach tourism, but not like in Spain or Greece, but bearing environmental considerations in mind,” he said.
The new strategy, due to be approved this year, will promote hiking, mountain tourism and agrotourism, and also cultural tours. Albania has three Unesco World Heritage sites: the ruins at Butrint and the Ottoman cities of Gjirokaster and Berat.
It has only been possible for outsiders to travel freely to Albania for the last 20 years. That means that foreign tourism and the hotel industry are relatively recent branches of the economy, and the country lacks experience in the area, Derraj says. It has not collected tourism statistics, only entries and exits, with no way of knowing whether the visitors are tourists or businesspeople.
Nor are there any statistics about hotel overnights.
“For tax reasons hotels are unwilling to cooperate with the data collection system of the tourism ministry,” he explains. “Since they still need to invest and grow, we aren’t putting any pressure on them at the moment. We are fairly tolerant.”
Gaby Ochsenbein in Tirana, swissinfo.ch – Translated from German by Julia Slater