Ancient city finds fans but Albania tourism hobbled
Date: Thursday, June 15 @ 06:18:53 PDT
Topic: Albanian Economy
BUTRINT, Albania (Reuters) - A friend of Roman orator
Cicero pleaded with him to lobby Julius Caesar not to build a
colony near his estate in Butrint because he feared he would
By Benet Koleka - Reuters
Titus Pomponius Atticus described the area as "the
quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world."
The story, recounted in Butrint's museum, does not say if
Cicero approached Caesar, but the latter built a colony here in
Two millennia later, Lord Rothschild and his team of
British archaeologists had better luck in convincing Albanian
leaders to refrain from building and instead manage the 29
square km (11.2 sq miles) around Butrint's ancient ruins as a
"It took a lot of faith to support the park because it was
an alien idea. They had to see it develop in the light of the
real world," Oliver Gilkes, the team's field director, said.
But it paid off.
The ruins of the Hellenistic, Roman, medieval and Venetian
worlds are now at the heart of the "sun and sand and culture"
tourism that new Tourism Minister Bujar Leskaj wants to offer.
Considered one of the most important archaeological sites
in the Balkans, Butrint's ruins are set on a small green
peninsula between Lake Butrint and the straits of Corfu, a
natural fortress almost completely surrounded by water.
A small hotel, the only one in the park's territory, caters
to some 400-500 tourists a day from May to October.
"They like the virgin nature, the fresh fish and mussels,"
said Hektor Balili, one of the owners. "Butrint is like the
Blue Mosque of Istanbul. But they do complain a lot about the
(narrow) road from Sarande (port)," he added.
Such logistical headaches -- poor roads, power cuts and
lack of accommodation -- are holding back Butrint, and tourism
in Albania. Most visitors to the ruins are day-trippers ferried
from Greece's Corfu Island across the bay.
They come, see it and leave. That was Albania.
But Albania has around 360 km (225 miles) of mostly virgin
coastline. Leskaj says his country needs an image makeover to
give it a reputation as a safe place, not bandit territory.
One of Europe's poorest countries, Albania accounts for
just 0.1 percent of tourism in Europe.
"We have the Kosovo and Macedonia (Albanians) market. Now
we are after the European and U.S. market, the adventure
tourists and the relatively rich," Leskaj said.
Cruise ships will stop regularly for the first time at
Albanian ports this summer for brief visits. Albania still
lacks the structures for mass tourism, but it is building
wherever it can, with scant regard for water supply or sewage.
Along the winding roads from Sarande to Butrint, visitors
can see bulldozers carving square sites out of rocky hillsides.
In one Sarande spot, the smell of sewage wafts into a bar
with the sea breeze.
"The blame falls squarely on the state for not keeping
ahead of individuals' desire to build," said Sarande writer
Agim Mato. But luckily, he said, the tourism wave was still a
"Albania's tourism is for the daring," he added.
Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet Publications,
agreed that wildcat building was far too evident during his May
"We visited Jal Beach just north of Himara ... beautiful
little bay, wonderful beach, being rapidly spoilt by some
horrible construction without any architectural merit or
relationship to the setting," Wheeler wrote to Reuters.
Leskaj said the government was offering fiscal incentives
to foreign companies and advising them either to lease or buy
land in order to increase accommodation. He is also looking
"The one who will invest in Alpine (skiing) tourism will be
the one who will reap most benefits," he said. Albania has lots
of snow but no lifts, and locals go abroad to ski.
NO ONE ELSE AROUND
Leskaj said he was conscious that Albania's "image abroad
is negative to zero," but said he planned to enlist famous
Albanians to make the case for their country.
The most notorious Albanian might better serve the purpose.
Wheeler noted that late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha
built more than half a million concrete pillbox bunkers to keep
invaders at bay, sprinkling them along the empty beaches.
That was when Albania was as isolated as North Korea is
today. The bigger bunkers have now been turned into
"I was amused by the bunkers and I think they're one of the
quirky, curious things about Albania which it could easily
capitalize on," said Wheeler.
"Albania needs to develop an image which is different from
anywhere else," he added.
Arjuna Schryvers and Eefje Ten Haken, an IT specialist and
a social worker from Maastricht in Holland, were touring
Albania with their mountain bikes in April near Porto Palermo
They said wanted to see for themselves a country "you do
not hear much about and people say it's dusty and chaotic."
"You don't see many tourists. This is pure and not
influenced by the West, although they're getting there,"
Schryvers told Reuters. "It's very interesting to see luxury
cars go through flocks of sheep."
"The nature is incredibly beautiful, people are friendly
and invited us to drink," he added. "We had a beach completely
to ourselves one day. We wondered why there was no one else
ACL - 15 June 2006