Shengjin is a small summer resort on Albania’s Adriatic coast with a long, beautiful sandy beach. Although on Saturday, July 7, the beach seemed crowded with visitors, restaurants and pizzerias were almost empty.
Local hoteliers and restaurant owners say that the visitors, mostly local tourists and Kosovars, come only to spend a day on the beach, but are not so eager to have lunch in a restaurant. They complain that the number of tourists is barely a quarter of that in a normal tourist season.
The Albanian tourism industry, one of the drivers of the country’s economy, was strongly hit by the lockdown after the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in mid-March. However, the authorities are vigorously trying to save the season as much as possible.
This summer season in Albania, where tourism has boomed in recent years, is completely different as a result of the pandemic which forced the HoReCa sector and tourists to get used to new health-protection rules.
A small resort waiting for guests
Shengjin, which we visited on a day trip from Skopje, is a new tourist destination on Albania's northwestern Adriatic coast. Its beach is filled with sunbeds from end to end. A high rocky mountain overlooks a line of new high-rise hotels behind the beach. This is a typical seaside view in Albania, which is full of picturesque landscapes, mountains and large ravines.
Among the small restaurants behind the beach is a bar called Tetova, named after the city of the same name in neighbouring North Macedonia. The owner of the restaurant and the hotel complex above it is an ethnic Albanian from North Macedonia.
As we were served with traditional Balkan kebabs, the manager of the complex, also from North Macedonia, was pleased to have guests from his country.
“The crisis affected us a lot; the loss is almost 100%. Tourists come only to use the beach, rarely go to a restaurant and shop poorly,” he said, adding that he does not expect a quick recovery in the sector, and it could take at least two to three years.
He told bne IntelliNews that most of the tourists come from Kosovo because it is the closest summer destination for Kosovars and of course local tourists.
“There were visitors from Poland, the Czech Republic in previous years, but not now because of the coronavirus. We rarely see guests from abroad, except, of course, from [North] Macedonia, of which some own apartments here,” he said.
Tourism outlets in Albania have sought to accommodate tourists especially those from nearby countries. Albania’s official currency is the lek, but paying with euros is also accepted. In a restaurant in Shengjin we even paid with Macedonian denars.
Tourist agencies in North Macedonia have managed to change destination markets. One-day charter bus tours to Greece were extremely popular, but the country is now closed for North Macedonia due to the coronavirus. Now tour operators have shifted to Albania. This has been welcomed by people in North Macedonia, who are distressed and desperate for a change of scene after several months of lockdown.
Shengjin’s location makes it an easy day trip from either Kosovo or North Macedonia, though parts of the trip from Skopje are slowed down by the condition of the roads.
On the way from Skopje to Shengjin, we passed through Kosovo. The border with Kosovo is close to Skopje, about 30 minutes driving, but the road is in very poor condition. Kosovo has managed to build its motorway section to North Macedonia's Blace border crossing, but the North Macedonia side has been delaying the construction of its part of the road for years.
The territory of Kosovo can be crossed by bus in two hours and from the Kosovo-Albania border to Shengjin it is less than two hours driving. Shengjin can be reached via the new highway leading from Kukes near the Kosovan border to the Albanian port of Durres.
The Kukes-Durres road project, the first toll road in the country, has been strongly criticised due to the imposition of high toll fees in 2018, €5 for cars and €22.5 for trucks. A few years ago, citizens of Kukes protested against the high toll fees for months and many times they turned violent.
However, the motorway is an easy drive that includes a large tunnel of about 6km, though the view on both sides is terrifying, with high mountains and huge ravines all around. There is almost no village or town along the road.
Anti-coronavirus measures not well respected
Although the government in Albania, a country of 2.9mn people with Adriatic and Ionian coastlines and an interior crossed by the Albanian Alps, has announced that tourism will be carried out under strict measures against coronavirus, it seemed that such measures were not much respected in Shengjin.
No one in the stores or in most of the restaurants wore a mask (there were some exceptions), and the beaches did not follow the 1.5-metre distance rules. The sunbeds were placed right next to each other, with less than one metre between them.
For some tourists, the poor implementation of measures was a reason to raise the question “To swim or not to swim?”
Only later, on July 15, did Albania adopt a mandatory measure for wearing masks, but only for indoor spaces.
“It is understandable that this year is going to be difficult,” National Tourism Agency of Albania (NTAA) officials commented to bne IntelliNews.
“The visitors from neighbouring Kosovo are present in our beaches. We do hope to benefit from North Macedonia as well, as this country is normally the second most important tourist market for Albania,” the NTAA said.
Due to the rising number of coronavirus infections, with the daily number failing to decrease for a prolonged period of time, the authorities urged vacationers recently to respect the protection measures.
The sector suffered a blow as the Albanian government decided to close all night clubs, discos and lounge bars as of July 20, as the spike of new coronavirus cases continued.
The health ministry announced that during the past week, there was an increasing trend of positive coronavirus cases with a weekly average of around 90 cases. There has also been an increase in patients who have been hospitalised or who required treatment in intensive care units.
As of July 21, the total number of infected people in Albania reached over 4,200 and 113 patients have died so far.
Reopening after the lockdown
Despite these difficulties, the tourism ministry is trying to keep the sector alive by organising charter flights to bring foreign tourists.
Tourism Minister Blendi Klosi said on July 20 that each week there will be six charter planes to bring foreign tourists in until September. Tourists have been instructed to enforce safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"These tourists are the ones who want to visit Albania a lot. We, in cooperation with tour operators, have requested that hotels where the foreign visitors will stay implement the strict protection measures,” Klosi said.
“We hope that the charter-oriented tourist business will continue as it has started with Belarus, Ukraine, as well as Poland and other Baltic countries. We also hope to see increasing number of tourists coming from Scandinavia, as this will create a good basis for the 2020 season to survive,” he added.
NTAA officials explained that currently Albania is working with charter flights with certain groups coming to the country for leisure activities.
“We do hope to continue this mode of transport for tourist groups coming to the country,” they said.
Lifting of restrictions for neighbouring countries started on June 1, allowing entry via land borders. All entry restrictions for air and sea borders started as of July 1, which was the official date of reopening the borders for all countries.
Albania started to open for tourism gradually and the first flights to and from Tirana airport were allowed on June 15. The first charter with 198 tourists from Belarus operated by Belavia landed in Tirana airport, followed by the second with 200 tourists from Ukraine.
The airport reopened to most destinations by June 22. In addition to charter flights, airlines such as Wizz Air, Air Albania and Albawings offer daily flights to and from Tirana for many destinations which include Athens, Belgrade, Brussels, Budapest, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Kyiv, London, Paris, Prague, Rome, Vienna and Zurich.
Albanian tourism in figures
Hotels reopened on May 18, after the government started to ease the lockdown measures.
According to media reports, which cited tourist facilities' owners, the hotel industry from Saranda and Vlora in the south to Shengjin on the north is severely hit by the crisis, as 75%-85% of reservations have been cancelled.
Few reservations remained for August and September, but the season seems totally unpredictable.
Hotel owners believe that contribution of the ethnic Albanian diaspora is very important for the recovery of the tourism industry.
Previously, the number of foreign tourists in Albania had been rising rapidly for several years. In 2013 there were 3mn tourists, 5.9mn in 2018 and 6.4mn in 2019. Last year, the number of foreign visitors increased by 8.1% over 2018.
No one can predict how far this number will drop this year, but considering that the number of guests was down by more than 95% during the lockdown the drop will clearly be large.
Visitors from Kosovo represented the largest group of foreigners in 2019. Their number was over 2.2mn (up 7.6%) or 35% of the total number of foreign tourists in the country in 2019. Visitors from North Macedonia accounted for 11% followed by tourists from Greece (9 %), Montenegro (6%) and Italy (7%).
Back in 2018, Klosi said that the authorities’ “clear challenge is to reach 10mn in the first years of the new decade.”
“We are here with our colleagues to devise some policies to support this sector and to support the intense work done by hoteliers and other operators,” Klosi said at the time.
According to statistics institute data for 2018, foreign citizens spent on average 4.3 over nights in Albania, spending on average €52 per day.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) the direct contribution of Albania's tourism sector to the country's economy is expected to grow to 9.3% by 2028, from to 4.6% in 2018. In 2018 the tourism sector contributed to the creation of around 286.000 new jobs.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) which projects a 5% GDP contraction for Albania in 2020 said that the country’s dependence on both tourism and remittances from Albanians working abroad will contribute to the contraction.