Flagging down ships in Albania

By bne IntelliNews January 19, 2012

Tim Gosling in Tirana -

Albania is pushing to develop its tourism potential, with everyone from the prime minister down lauding the country's merits. While the government has been heavily investing in infrastructure to help visitors get to the unspoilt coast, one World Bank project hopes to attract the thousands already passing by on the large cruise ships sailing the Adriatic.

"In Dubrovnik I saw cruise ships carrying 4,000 passengers each lining up to dock. The port was crammed with buses waiting to take them on to sightseeing and shopping trips and to eat at restaurants. Can you imagine that in Albania?" exclaims Gazmend Haxhia, CEO of Albania Experience, the country's largest incoming tourist operator. Haxhia is hoping to tempt the largest cruise ships to start calling in on a country that he calls "the hole on the Adriatic coast" when it comes to the world's largest cruise companies.

If you believe the commentators on the tourist industry and Albania's government, major cruise ship operators are already said to have made land and are investigating the potential in Albania. They're attracted, says Haxhia, not only by the temptation of adding a new, and somewhat mysterious, destination, but also by services "around 20% cheaper than in the EU."

While the country is a port of call on the itineraries of the occasional smaller boat carrying 300 passengers or so (around 30 drop anchor for a short visit each year), the volume of tourists being fed, watered and entertained elsewhere in the Adriatic is far greater. Bringing in the world's biggest operators would change the game, reckons Haxhia.

The World Bank also clearly sees the potential for "sustainable economic development" that the cruise ships offer, and is spending $4.7bn to help transform the southern port of Saranda into a dedicated ferryboat and passenger terminal. Tagged as the Saranda Gateway project, the plan includes the conversion of the existing cargo dock into a cruise liner berth and deepening of the port's sea channel to allow access to the bigger ships.

According to local media reports, Deputy Minister of Transportation Ernest Noka signed a construction contract with Greek company Ionois in September, and suggested that the project should be completed by late 2012.

Tirana and tourism

Tourism and Culture Minister Aldo Bumci points out that the government has spent over €2bn on improving the country's roads and utilities infrastructure to help support increased tourist numbers. He confirms that some of the largest cruise operators are looking at Albania, signaling a major change in Tirana's development thinking over the last decade. "The national strategy has changed, it's a different environment and way of thinking. Tourism is now a far more central issue for the government ... It should become the most important sector in the country," Bumci says, adding that one of the advantages of developing tourism is to slow migration from rural areas by offering work opportunities.

However, it's not just the infrastructure that needs to be developed, Haxhia argues. "Durres and Saranda were originally destined to become large commercial ports," he points out, "the change in thinking locally is a big challenge."

And the size of the challenge at a local level is daunting. "We're now looking at the most important part of the deal," reports Haxhia. "To serve the passengers onshore with trips, events and local cuisine. Even for a medium-sized vessel carrying 2,000 we'll need to provide 40 buses, 40 guides and 2,000 lunches. That's a tough call in a small Albanian town."

However, it would be well worth the effort given the huge shot in the arm it would give the local economies. "Each passenger leaving the ship spends around €60," Haxhia says.

To the north, Croatia estimates it welcomed 1.2m visitors from cruise ships in 2011. Whilst Albania can't hope to reach that sort of volume, the potential shot in the arm for a national economy that totaled just $12.6bn in 2009 according to the World Bank - let alone the effect on the local coastal economies - would be enormous.

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