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Albania: Pollution Keeps Tourists Away

Shipping accident off Albanian coast does further damage to country’s tourism industry.
By Suela Musta

Pollution caused by a shipping accident in the Ionian Sea at the height of this year’s tourist season has caused further problems for Albania’s already struggling tourism industry.

With its Mediterranean climate, secluded beaches, forested mountains and Roman ruins, Albania has much to offer foreign visitors, domestic tourists and ex-pat citizens returning home.

But observers say the sinking of a Greek ship on August 21 combined with long-term problems caused by bad infrastructure, weak advertising, negative publicity abroad and unchecked development to cause a disastrous tourist season.

The accident near the southern Albanian port of Saranda released huge quantities of diesel fuel and hydro carburant waste into surrounding waters. Arben Luzati, from the Institute of Hygiene, told IWPR that pollution has risen to ten times accepted levels.

Youth organisations have protested in front of the Greek embassy in Tirana at what they say is the deliberate release of diesel into the Ionian Sea by Greek ships.

But Greek environment minister Vasso Papandreou denied the allegations, arguing that Greek shipping operates according to strict European and international regulations.

Although a criminal investigation has been launched into the incident, so far nobody has been found responsible.

Hotel owners, taxi drivers and tourist officials partly blame the accident for a major slump during this year’s tourist season. Tourism minister Bashkim Fino told journalists at a press conference at the end of the summer that the decline was so marked that August actually failed to beat other months as the peak period.

But all agree that the incident has only added to serious problems already faced by Albania’s tourism industry, including longer-term pollution concerns.

Xhemal Mato, president of the Association for Environmental Protection, told IWPR that the lack of any measures to clean Albanian beaches and the surrounding waters is a serious concern.

“Pollution from sewage that comes straight into the sea from nearby houses and hotels is alarming for the future of tourism here,” he said.

During August of this year, over 50 cases of skin infections were reported in just a few days in the Golem resort and at the Shkëmbi i Kavajës beach in Durrës, the most popular holiday destination for those living in Tirana who can’t afford to travel abroad.

Albania’s weak infrastructure also causes problems for tourism.

“When a foreigner faces a lack of water or power… it immediately erases the image of the enigmatic unexplored Albanian seaside,” tourism expert Gjergj Buxhuku told IWPR.

And transport links can be poor. There are few buses connecting Tirana with the south of the country and the poor state of the roads means that just travelling the 80 km along the coast between Saranda and the summer resort of Himara in a private car takes almost three hours.

Vasil Bollano, the mayor of Himara, told IWPR that a lack of funds means there is little that can be done to fix the roads. “The central government simply does not care to develop strategies for tourism in this area,” he said.

Residents of Himara and other tourist destinations such as Dermia and Borsh are also frustrated by the indifference that the Albanian government apparently shows to promoting the country’s tourism industry.

“The television stations in Greece show adverts promoting their own seaside, but in Albania all you get if you turn on the television is how wonderful it is in Turkey or Tunis,” said Rexho Luka, who lives in Himara.

Adverts for foreign tourist destinations on Albanian television appear to serve their purpose – the tourism ministry estimates that 30,000 Albanians travelled to Turkey this summer.

Albanians say that their own country receives bad press abroad.

Dino Noksani, a taxi driver in Saranda, says Greek travel agencies in Corfu organising boat crossings to nearby Albania paint a negative picture of the country.

“When tourists come here from Greece they are told to even take their own bread from Corfu because there is likely to be nothing to eat in Albania,” he told IWPR.

Further information on Albania in neighbouring countries is often scarce or inaccurate.

Keida Lulo, a well-known architect based in Tirana, says badly planned development stands to create even more problems for Albania’s tourism industry in the future.

The practice of constructing new hotels in brick rather than traditional stone will discourage tourists who are interested in Albania’s cultural and historical heritage, he said.

And he also warned that more care should be taken to maintain attractive older buildings.

“To attract tourists, Albania must rebuild and renovate the extraordinary stone houses in the Riviera villages, which are getting very old because no care is put into protecting them,” he told IWPR.

One prominent example of Albania’s potential as a tourist destination is Tirana, which is in the process of overcoming a decade of illegal construction with a new campaign of careful urban planning. With its recently cleaned river, colourful buildings and traditional restaurants, some observers predict that Tirana will soon become south-east Europe’s answer to Prague.

Many are concerned that government officials will leave it too late before attempting the same kind of turn-around for the south of the country.

Suela Musta is a journalist for TOP Albania Radio. Jeta Xharra is manager of IWPR’s Kosovo project.

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