Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tourist Boom?

If the local press is to be believed, Albania is experiencing a huge increase in tourism this summer. My own experience confirms that to a degree and evidently there are enough solid facts to support an article in the Southeastern European Times which makes the same claims. Forty-six percent increase over last year? This is great - or is it?

Like I said, the newspapers here are full of articles about the tourist boom. Hotels full to capacity. Durres ferry port deluged with passengers and cars. Border crossings between Kosova, Macedonia, Greece and Albania recording record levels of inbound travellers. Cruise ships calling at Sarande.

My own experience with the crush includes a 60-minute transit over a section of highway near Durres that normally takes 5-10 minutes and a quick trip to the port of Durres last night to drop off a departing passenger. I couldn't even drive within three blocks of the ferry terminal. I booted him out with his luggage in the 80 degree heat and wished him well. Geez, I hated doing that to a seventy-some year old relative, but the traffic really was bad. :-)

So it looks like the increase is real, so what's the downside? In principle, nothing. I am a great supporter of tourism as a boost to the Albanian economy. At every chance I get I tout Albania as fantastic destination to family, friends, colleagues, complete strangers. My internet pimping for this place is getting a little out of control. The only problem with the reporting of this increase is what the newspapers don't tell you.

First, much of the increase in passenger traffic is Albanian emigrants coming home for holiday. This is good for the country as these folks are bringing back money earned abroad and injecting it into the economy. They're also bringing back valuable experience and perspective on the benefits, and costs, of living abroad. It's more exposure to the Western ideas of citizenship, environmentalism, and community involvement. This is the "intangible currency" the returnees bring back along with the Euro's, dollars, and pounds. But visiting emigrants don't have the same economic impact as actual foreign tourists. They often stay with relatives or in their own houses, cook and eat at home, and generally are more frugal. Good for them, not so good for the tourism industry.

The second unreported aspect of this "surge" (with apologies to the people of Iraq) is that it happens in a very short time. From July 15 until August 30th the horde descends. Come the first week of September, it's done. The only crowds are outbound at the border crossing points, ferry terminals, and the airport. Reminds me a little of lemmings all coming and going at the same time. From October to mid-June, the country is a ghost-town, touristically speaking.

Filtered out of the background noise of emigrant returns, my impression of the tourist situation is there are improvements, just not the 46% increase cited. Two of the biggest increases come from what is known as "patriotic tourism" by ethnic Albanians living in Kosova and Macedonia. Since the declaration of independence by Kosova the political landscape has changed and these changes influence people's travel choices. Since Montenegro has not recognized the independence of Kosova, Kosovars are abandoning Budva, Kotor, and the other wonderful coastal resorts and flocking to Velipoje, Shengjin, and Durres.

Similarly the little name-related brouhaha between Macedonia and Greece has pushed a lot of the Macedonians to choose Albania as a destination vice Thessaloniki or other Greek vacation spots. The really interesting part of this is it's not just ethnic Albanians from Macedonia. A co-worker of mine owns an apartment in Vlora and has been amazed at the number of Macedonian-speaking tourists holidaying there. She quipped the other day, "Now I know what it must be like to live in Skopje." Sure, Skopje... with beaches, beautiful ocean views, wonderful fresh seafood, sailing, and lower prices. Just like Skopje .... not. Anyway, official estimates are that around 10,000 Macedonian tourists have opted for Albania this year. Bravo.

I've also noticed an increase in young foreign travellers in Tirana. More backpackers trekking along Rruga Elbasan trying to find the only youth hostel in Albania as well as a couple of Scandanavian beauties strolling along the Blloku getting stared at by all the Albanian guys. I attended a wedding with over 20 American guests in attendance, many of whom had chosen to make a vacation out of the event and had spent nearly two weeks touring around the country. All of this is anecdotal evidence of improvement in the non-emigrant sector.

What's next? Albania has to expand it's tourist window and market outside of the traditional summer beach holiday zone. Spring holidays, school breaks in winter, adventure travel, historic and cultural tours aimed at specific markets in Europe and the rest of the world. And it has to be the private sector. The ministry of tourism can assist and monitor the situation, but the real effort must be done by private enterprise and local communities. Outdoor Albania is a good example of a private company finding its niche and aggressively marketing a specialized product that is not "tourist village" oriented.

Now lets get a walking tour company to cater to the eccentric Brits who love to hike. What about the a private company partnering with the Albanian Alpinism Society to bring in climbers to the Accursed Mountains, Nemercka, or the peaks around Korabi? My personal favorite would be an adventure motorcycle outfit that arranges two-wheeled tours of the back-country. There are some roads to die for out there. (That's to die for, not to die on!) The attractions are there. The country is ripe for exploration. Build it smart and they will come.


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