Tourism beyond the beaches in Albania

Tourism beyond the beaches in Albania
The beach at Durres on Albania’s Adriatic coast, is one of the most crowded in the world in summer, but few people visit out of season.
By Clare Nuttall in Tirana and Durres February 14, 2019

Long reliant on package tourists from Eastern Europe and neighbouring Balkan states who flock to its beaches in the summer season, Albania is gradually diversifying its tourist offering. 

Tourism and related industries already account for over a quarter — 26.2% — of Albania’s GDP, a staggeringly high proportion that beats the share in major tourist destinations like Greece, Italy and Turkey, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Yet those in the industry believe there is huge potential to broaden the types of tourism on offer away from the traditional package holidays. 

“The big figures are for the seaside, mainly tourists from Eastern Europe, but also Kosovo and Macedonia, who come for beach holidays,” says Alma Gerxhani of Manderina, the Tirana based PR and marketing company that created the Visit Tirana portal. 

“While there has always been a group of western travellers interested in culture — they visit Albania’s Unesco sites — these numbers are smaller.” As well as the Unesco World Heritage sites at Berat, Butrint and Gjirokastra, Gerxhani and Manderina’s co-founder Eva Kushova list the potential for adventure tourism, nature destination, rafting, hiking, riding and other types of holiday. 

“Today the vast majority of tourists are concentrated in the summer months, coming on package holidays from Eastern Europe, arriving on charter flights and spending one or two weeks on the beach,” agrees Matteo Colangeli, the head of the EBRD office in Tirana, in an interview with bne IntelliNews

“Certainly there is the potential to go beyond that in terms of attracting people to other parts of the country. Albania has nature, mountains, food and culture, so could attract independent and higher paying tourists, aside from the charter flight package holiday crowd.”

The ancient ampitheatre at Butrint, one of Albania's UNESCO World Heritage sites. Source: Pudelek

Out of season 

Developing alternative types of tourism would give a boost to communities, especially in rural areas, as well as the economy as a whole. Even beach resorts struggle for much of the year, as the summer season is brief. The latest data from state statistics office Instat shows that while tourist arrivals continued their rise in 2018, there is a sharp fall after the two peak months of July and August. 

The beach at Durres, for example, a city on Albania’s Adriatic coast, is one of the most crowded in the world in summer, according to a survey. But a couple of months after the end of high season, even though temperatures are still in the mid 20s, the beach is deserted. The golden sand barely visible in summer from under hundreds of umbrellas as deckchairs is covered in a thick layer of brown gunk, a mix of seaweed and debris from the palm trees along the seafront.

The restaurants on the ground floors of the towering hotels and apartment blocks along the seafront are almost empty by early November, and the only people riding the pirate ship and carousel are posses of local teenagers, their screams competing with the squealing seagulls. “There is no beach now,” comments the concierge at a nearby hotel, whose rooms are almost all empty, blaming the situation on “mismanagement”.

Durres out of season

Alternative tourism 

The other side of the tourist industry in Albania, that is very different from the mass-market package tours, are the cultural and adventure tours tailored by small companies launched by individuals who are passionate about creating a very different kind of experience. 

Good Albania, which says it offers “authentic rustic adventures”, organises small private tours that range from food and wine tasting, to cultural tours to tours of Tirana’s communist history, and an important part of the experience is meeting Albanian families. 

Managing director and tour leader Geri Cakoni describes Albania’s “unique population”, and the experience of “seeing a country in the middle of Europe but with a very different way of handling life.” This was what encouraged Cakoni to go out and make connections with local people who would welcome tourists into their homes. Of everything they do and see, this tends to be what his clients remember at the end of their holidays: “They have seen beautiful sites like Saranda, Berat and Gjirokaster, but what they remember is a hug from the grandma in the country house, learning how to make bureks [traditional pastries] with three generations of women, making and tasting raki, our national drink.” 

Vladimir Dedndreaj had a similar need to show people the real Albania when he founded Albania Adventure, which offers diverse activities, some of them water-based such as kayaking, stand-up paddle and scuba diving, while others take visitors into the interior of the country for canyoning or rock climbing. Reflecting the wide range of activities possible in the country, Albania Adventure’s most popular tour is the Multi-Activity Tour, which offers a different activity every day. 

“I was always guided by the spirit of adventure and strongly passionate about exploring Albania’s beauty and nature. I was joined by my friends in my adventures. Over time, we became familiar with the local inhabitants and their customs and traditions and also I started to tell about the Albanian beauties to other foreign friends,” Dedndreaj explains how the company was launched. 

“I realised that the interest to visit wild areas in Albania was big, so I thought: Why not? Why not share my passion with others? I started to create unique tours to the most remote regions of Albania. And this was just the beginning.”

Unlike Cakani and Dedndreaj the co-founder of Outdoor Albania, Laura Payne, came from the Netherlands, though her partner Gent Mati is from Albania. They were similarly inspired by a desire to show the best of Albania to visitors. “For me it was an easy decision, nothing better than a bit of adventure, building your own business, creating amazing holidays for our guests and bringing economical benefits to many providers — often rural — in Albania,” Payne tells bne IntelliNews

“Our offer has always consisted of itinerary holidays (never just beach stays) that are focussed in the active discovery of the Albanian nature and culture. Authenticity and life seeing experiences are solid components of our tours. We are pleased to see that these values are also embraced by a growing number of customers.”

The Valbonë Valley National Park. Source: Tobias Klenze

Albania’s image problem 

The founders of these independent tour companies say they are dealing with people who are already aware of the attractions of Albania, whether it’s the culture, nature, cuisine or opportunities for outdoor and adventure sports. But such travellers are in the minority. For the most part, Albania has a bit of an image problem with poverty and crime being among the words associated with the country. And on top of this, there has been a failure to promote the country’s tourism much beyond beach holidays. 

Since the fall of communism, Manderina’s Gerxhani says, the tourist board and tour operators picked the easy option: marketing “the southern beaches that look and feel like Greece but are cheaper.” 

“There was an attempt to get the name out there, which required references and associations with beaches which people feel strongly about when gong on vacation. But I’d stress more the local experiences, I’d would love for people to stretch beyond beaches or Unesco cities. This would be much more helpful to the local communities,” she says. 

The Manderina founders say there was virtually no information in English on the Albanian capital so they launched the Visit Tirana portal, following the models of successful sites for cities like Copenhagen. This was done entirely on their own initiative, and later attracted the attention of Tirana mayor Erjan Veliaj who complimented the Manderina team for “promoting our city way better than some of us are tasked to do by City Hall!”. The plan now is to expand across Albania. 

Asked why people should visit Albania, Gerxhani has no shortage of reasons: “The nature is beautiful, the culture — we have been there for ages, we are very ancient, our language is one of the oldest in the world. The people are one of our biggest assets, very hospitable, genuine hospitality, where people are considered not as a client but as a friend… even if they don’t have much to offer they still offer.” 

Kushova offers an additional perspective: “Now we are getting this freedom, this bright spirit, especially in Tirana among the young people. There is a nice atmosphere, they are enjoying life. We suffered a lot and now we are gradually moving forward and this is very interesting to see.”

Tirana's central Skenderbeg Square

Coping with a tourism influx 

There are signs that campaigns like Manderina’s Visit Albania site and its annual photo festival and social media competition are paying off. Data from the state statistics agency Instat shows a steady increase in the number of tourists visiting Albania each year, with foreign arrivals up 15.8% y/y to 5.93mn in 2018. Yet the growing numbers of arrivals has thrown an unwelcome spotlight onto area where Albania may be ill equipped to come with greater numbers of visitors. 

Infrastructure is an issue for companies across the economy, with tourism no less affected than other sectors. “Of course there is potential, but there is a lot that needs to be done to exploit the potential. Certainly infra is a big issue,” says the EBRD’s Colangeli, listing energy infrastructure and municipal infrastructure such as water management on top of the obvious issue of transport infrastructure. 

For example, to get from Albania’s only international airport in Tirana to the beaches of southern Albania is a journey of five to six hours by road. Albania is, however, likely to get at least one additional airport before too long as there are plans both to revive the idle airport at Kukes and to build a new airport at the coastal city of Vlore. 

On the other hand, says Gerxhani, “getting about can be part of the adventure.” Dedmdreaj makes a similar point, saying 4WD tours are popular among Albania Adventure’s clients, as they make it possible to visit parts of Albania where “I am sure most Albanians still haven’t visited”. 

And while industry insiders and visitors rave about Albanian hospitality, Colangeli points out that more must be done in terms of quality of service. “Some work has to be done in terms of offering a tourist experience more in line with Albania’s neighbours in terms of standards and quality of service. Another big issue across all sectors is informality: a large amount of businesses work in the informal economy in Albania, which is especially true in the tourism sector.” 

In terms of consequences visible to tourists: this means that often hotels and restaurants only take payment in cash, and many people are employed for the season and on a cash payment basis, which “is not conducive to high quality of service,” says Colangeli. Around 40% of payments in Albania are made in cash. 

Pollution is another area that urgently needs to be addressed. Albania severely lacks waste management capacity, a situation that worsened when the Everest urban waste recycling plant near Tirana went burned down last year. Since the country lacked landfill sites for decades, plastic and other forms of pollution at tourist sites is rampant, a problem that is also affecting nearby tourist hotspots like Croatia, which suffers from Albanian litter washing up on its beaches. 

Payne, meanwhile, warns of negative fallout from the fast growing economy, including in the tourist sector. “The country is developing fast and with the government trying to capitalise credits from the ‘touristic boom’, the landscapes and communities are endangered by an uncontrolled and often ruthless development,” she says, listing, for example, the wave of investments into new dams and hydropower plants.

Who benefits? 

Tourism is one of the largest sectors of the Albanian economy, and — along with energy — was one of the main contributors to the faster than expected growth in the first half of 2018, as it outperformed expectations. 

Tourism is important on a micro level too. Good Albania’s Cakani estimates that a single visit from one of the firm’s tour parties is worth two months of salary to a rural family. “It’s very important for these rural areas and for the families to get support from this type of tourism,” he says. 

But, he believes, not enough of the revenues from tourism is making its way to local communities. "We must do a much better job at emphasising what’s best [about Albania] and not focus on the temporary guest that wants to see very city by coach. They make a contribution of 10-20% of the tour price to the local people, while the rest goes to big restaurants, hotels, tour operators. We really need to do a better job at focussing more on local people than on the main sites.”