Text by Global Travel Editor Costas Christ
Albania’s isolation from the rest of the world for decades during the Cold War had an unintended consequence. The country today retains its wild landscapes, uncrowded historical sites, and traditional villages in a region that is one of the most crowded tourism destinations on the planet—the Mediterranean.
I recently joined a group of 64 Albanians in the coastal town of Durres to discuss a sustainable tourism plan, one that would help protect the natural and cultural heritage, while improving the livelihoods of the local people. The fact that Albanians are coming together to talk seriously about sustainable tourism as a means of economic development puts them ahead of many nearby countries that followed the path of mass tourism development, which has left behind damaged ecosystems, polluted beaches, and vanishing local culture (think Santorini in Greece, Provence in France, or the Costa del Sol in Spain). While uncontrolled tourism has already spread to some parts of Albania (the coastal town of Durres suffers from chaotic concrete block hotel development, a glut of tourist bars, and litter in the streets), much of the rest of the country still offers a chance to experience traditional Mediterranean life that has become increasingly rare in the region.
During my trip, the Albanians I met were friendly, the prices cheap, the local food excellent. Traditional music thrives, and the rugged mountains provide truly off-the-beaten-trail Mediterranean hiking. Of course, there is also a down side to being an emerging tourism destination (if you consider it that way). Like all less trodden countries, very few businesses outside the capital city of Tirana accept credit cards or even take travelers checks, so carry cash. Because tourists remain a rarity in the remote mountains, the locals still have their sheep dogs trained to attack anything that comes close to their flocks, just as they have done for centuries. My advice, if you get cornered by a sheep dog on the trail, is just to back away slowly--the apologetic and smiling shepherd will show up quickly to call off his dog (and probably invite you to share food with his family, too). Expect short travel distances between towns and villages, but long drives to get there–the roads are not up the standards of the rest of Europe. For the more adventurous traveler, these are not problems, and might even be welcome signs that all uniqueness is not lost in the age of global-brand tourism.
If Albania plans it right—and a growing number of Albanians are calling for sustainable tourism development to avoid the mistakes of tourism gone wrong in other parts of the Mediterranean—the once forgotten country could emerge as a model of destination stewardship in ten years time (or even less). By supporting the Albanians who are working hard to put sustainable tourism into action in their country,we can help that process. I am already planning my next trip to Albania in June, this time to the Korca region. Here are the resources you’ll need to plan your own trip.
Adventure Guide: Albania
Ben Cipa, owns Sipa Tours (www.sipatours.com) in southern Albania (bordering the Greek island Corfu and organizes guided treks across isolated beaches and sea-hugging mountains, eating and sleeping in villages along the way. He comes from a family of Albanian artists and poets and is an incredible folk dancer (his real passion), whom I had the good fortune to see in action during a late night of wine and raki.
Sonia Popa, operates Gulliver OK (www.gulliver-OK.com), a travel company based in the capital, Tirana. She specializes in cultural experiences and historical sites and is passionate about making sustainable tourism a reality in her country. She’ll send someone to meet you at the airport and set up an itinerary suited to your own interests, including places like Butrinti National Park, a World Heritage Site.
Gent Mati and Laura Payne run Outdoor Albania (www.outdooralbania.com) and can get you into the farthest and most wild areas of the country – trekking, biking, and kayaking - including the northern Albanian Alps. These are the folks to go to for less touristed experiences in a place that isn’t even on the tourist path to start with.