Albania has become best known for its sun and sea tourism during the past quarter of a century as the country emerged from almost total isolation under communism when it remained Europe’s best kept secret for about five decades until the early 1990s.
With tourism emerging as a key sector of the economy, the country’s authorities and tour operators see adventure holidays as the best option to turn tourism into a year round industry.
Represented by mountain hiking and rafting along canyons, Albania’s adventure tourism is also gaining popularity among European adventurers seeking new challenges in emerging destinations.
Earlier this year, U.S.-based Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) placed Albania as one of the three destinations added to the top adventure travel destinations along with Cuba and Portugal.
“For Europeans, Italy, Spain, and France receive the most bookings year after year. A surprise for 2017, however, is the appearance a new country among the top five destinations for Europeans: Albania. The spark of interest in Albania is noteworthy, as a spotlight has been on the region since 2014 with AdventureWeek Western Balkans, Balkans-focused AdventureEDU trainings, and the recent AdventureNEXT Balkans industry event,” says the ATTA.
Several outdoor tour operators in the country offer hiking, rafting, biking, horse riding and birds watching adventures in the country, while cross-border tourism is gaining an upper hand with the opening of some mountain hiking trails such as the ancient Via Egnatia linking Rome to Byzantium, the present-day Istanbul, crossing through Albania and Macedonia.
The Via Dinarica mountain hiking trail crossing through seven Western Balkans countries is another joint destination regional countries have opened up as they strive to increase their competitiveness by offering joint package holidays, being too small to compete on their own. The trek which stitches together ancient trading and military routes traversing the Dinaric Alps was rated by prestigious National Geographic as one of the best 2017 trips.
The Peaks of the Balkans, a 192 km cross border hiking trail which connects mountainous areas of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, is another opportunity that has been made available in the past few years.
“The Balkans has left behind war and is now in peace and safe having a unique opportunity to show the world an unexplored region which is thinking of joint development on its road to the EU,” Albania’s Economy and Tourism Minister Milva Ekonomi said earlier this year at a Tirana regional tourism fair.
Albania has been diversifying its map of European tourist arrivals as the country emerges as an under-the-radar destination and tourism gains momentum as a much promising sector for the developing Albanian economy.
While patriotic tourism from ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro still accounts for more than half of tourist arrivals, the geographical location of tourists has also extended to Greece, Italy, Germany, the UK, France and Switzerland although a considerable number of foreign tourists coming from these countries are believed to be Albanians holding dual citizenship.
Tourists from Serbia and central European countries such as Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic have also considerably increased in the past few years.
The tourism industry has been one of the country’s fastest growing in the past few years, attracting more than 4 million tourists and generating about €1.5 billion, about 8.4 percent of the country’s GDP in 2016 alone.
The travel and tourism industry directly supported 85,000 jobs in 2016 but the sector’s total contribution to employment including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts in 2016 was 267,000 jobs or about 24 percent of the country’s total employment, according to a report by London-based World Travel & Tourism Council, WTTC.
Closed to tourists for about five decades until the early 1990s, Albania offers a miscellaneous picture of coastal and mountain tourism and has been attracting more and more foreign tourists in the past decade being nicknamed as “A new Mediterranean love” and “Europe’s last secret.”
The country is also attracting tourist by opening up some former secretive facilities under communism such as newly launched House of Leaves museum of the notorious Sigurimi police surveillance in downtown Tirana.
Earlier this year, authorities also opened up to tourists the Sazan Island, a military base in southern Albania managed by the defense ministry. The tiny island was first used by the Italians until World War II before becoming the country’s most secretive base under communism when it was fortified with bunkers and tunnels designed to withstand a possible nuclear attack that the Albanian communist authorities feared.
Back in 2015, Albania also opened up as a tourist attraction a Cold War secret bunker outside Tirana that the former communist regime had built underground decades ago to survive a possible nuclear attack.
Several hydropower plant projects in the virgin Vjosa and Valbona rivers in Albania have sparked international concern over two of Europe’s last wild rivers while plans to build a mass tourism resort also put at risk a national park and lagoon including the already endangered Dalmatian Pelican breeding there.
With the peak tourist season already underway, the country hopes to have another successful year luring tourists with dozens of sandy and rocky beaches along its 476 km coastline stretching through the Adriatic and Ionian, the most famous of which are found on the Albanian Riviera south of the country.
Albania boasts three UNESCO World Heritage sites, intangible heritage such as iso-polyphony music and material cultural heritage dating back to Illyrian, Roman, ancient Greece and Ottoman eras.