Albania Shifts Hopes From Hunting to Tourism

Bird-watching and wildlife tours in Adriatic Sea lagoons have drawn international tourist attention after a government ban on hunting. Bird-watching and wildlife tours in Adriatic Sea lagoons have drawn international tourist attention after a government ban on hunting. The Albanian government has recently repurposed Karavasta Lagoon in Divjake National park. The largest lagoon in Albania, Karavasta was until recently closed to the general public. Situated about 90km south of Tirana on the Adriatic shore, Karavasta has been off-limits for years. Military property during the communist era, Karavasta Lagoon was patrolled by the authorities who feared Albanians would use it as a route to escape the country. Karavasta later became infamous for playing home to criminal gangs. The marks of that era are still present in the lagoon, where marble signs holding the name of those killed can be found in the park. In recent years Divjake has contributed to the Albanian economy by hosting tourists who came to hunt its abundant birds and other wildlife. Hunting, much of it illegal, brought income to the region while damaging the wetland’s fragile ecology and threatening populations of endangered birds and other wildlife. That era came to an end in March 2014 when the Albanian government temporarily banned hunting throughout the entire country, arguing that the ban was necessary to protect Albania’s wildlife. The first hunting moratorium was for just two years, but a new bill is on the way, renewing the ban for an additional five years. Taulant Bino, who runs the Albanian Ornithological Society, told BIRN that banning hunting was a necessary step in preserving and rebuilding the country's damaged fauna populations after long years of irresponsibility and neglect. A new industry emerges  In hunting’s wake, a new tourism industry appears to be taking root: birdwatching. In April 2016, AOS worked with a local tour operator to organize a tour for foreigners with an interest in the area’s wildlife. A group of 16 people from Eng land spent a week bird-watching and exploring fauna in Karavasta and at Narta Lagoon, another of Albania’s important wetlands. "We had very good feedback and additional requests for the tour,” says Bino. "I believe that the area has a huge potential in creating a new touristic identity. Activities like birdwatching and wildlife discovery can easily be developed. Historical and cultural aspects of the area can be included." Divjake National Park is the home to 242 of Albania’s 330 native bird species. The most notable is the rare Dalmatian pelican, the largest bird in Europe. Fifty-two couples now tend their eggs on an island in the middle of Karavasta lagoon. But there’s much more to Karavasta than pelicans. Large flocks of white storks, flamingos, cattle egrets, little egrets, hoopoes, yellow-egged gulls, yellow wagtails, woodchat shrikes, bee-eaters, oystercatchers, Kentish plovers and more are found in the area. A passionate ornithologist, Bino believes that this rich variety will lead to a steady stream of tourists, generating income for local residents and leading the country to invest more in protecting the environment. "These kinds of activities have the potential to add value and give Albanian tourism an important new dimension," Bino said.   Source: BalkanInsight
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Cold War tourism a hot commodity in Albania

Labyrinthine underground network is one of many artifacts enticing tourists Deep beneath the sleepy Albanian town of Gjirokastra, an abandoned military bunker — a damp, earthy and cavernous network of ghostly tunnels — greets tourists.   It is a haunting link to a communist past frozen in time. Not traditionally known as a tourism destination, Albania is beginning to welcome an influx of foreigners — many of whom are fascinated by the Balkan nation’s colourful history. The bunker satiates the curiosity of any Cold War historian, immersing visitors in the 1970s and ’80s, a time when Albania was at its height ofisolation from the world. The bunker is one of about half a million located throughout Albania. (Albania’s final Leninist-style government finally collapsed under severe economic turmoil in 1992 and the country is now a candidate to become a member of the European Union.) “The bunker was a sheltered place to party leaders and military leaders in case of a possible attack by any foreign army,” says Fatjon Hoxhalli of the Albanian National Tourism Agency. Built by former dictator, Enver Hoxha, to protect his citizens from Western or Soviet invasion, the bunker’s concrete caves are a testament of a bygone era, one of deeply felt paranoia. Desks strewn with dusty and cryptic military documents, cobwebbed generators, and stray cats populated the bowels of this musty attraction that spanned dozens of rooms and corridors. “[The Cold War Tunnel] is the only one in Albania opened to visitors and it makes people understand why we shouldn’t go back to a certain era,” says Elena Bardhi, director of projects at Albanian Tourism. The Cold War Tunnel sat boarded up for decades until recently, when the Municipality of Gjirokastra began restoring its lighting grid and undertaking topographic studies to ensure the tunnels are structurally safe. The tunnel is now being tested as a tourist site. The city will soon install a ventilation system and perhaps even a Cold War museum. Cold War nostalgia continues to dominate the city’s skyline above the bunker’s tunnels, too. Outside the gates of Gjirokaster Castle sits an American spy plane from the late 1950s. Its origins are not clear — some versions say the plane had mechanical failure and was forced to land in Albania, while others say it was a NATO training jet forced down by the communist government. Children play in the aircraft’s wings, oblivious to the hulking metal skeleton’s symbolism. The castle’s interior is also home to the National Museum of Armaments and a former Communist-era prison. Taking the Cold War Tunnel plunge in Gjirokastra is an eerie pursuit that will impart more insight into the country’s past than most travel blogs could hope to deliver. Just remember to bring a flashlight. “Castles and museums exist everywhere — but this is something totally different,” says Bardhi. “It gives you the taste of something you have never seen. You face the real unexpected and mysterious.”   Source:   DORIAN GEIGER SPECIAL TO THE STAR, The Star
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Albania Bids For Slice of Russian Tourist Market

Albania is not the first option of the average Russian holiday-maker - but if the Albanian government has its way, that is going to change soon.   The Albanian government is eyeing the tourist market in Russia at a time when Russian holidaymakers are becoming wary of such traditional destinations as Turkey and Greece. The idea is to exploit the problems facing Turkey and Greece, when both are struggling with refugee crises, and when terrorism is also making itself felt in Turkey. Leading the campaign to include Albania on the official tourist map of Russia is the Albanian National Tourism Agency, AKT, whose director, Ardit Collaku, told BIRN that a new relationship is being forged between Albanian tourism institutions and travel agencies in Russia. "I just came from a visit to Moscow and Kazan where I meet my counterparts to discuss tourism. The Russians appreciate the fact that Albania is not touched by the refugee crises and we found a high level of interest on their side," Collaku said. A delegation of Russian tourist agencies and travel writers is expected to visit Albania in April to learn more about its touristic potential. "The Russian delegation is going to come within April and we are preparing for them," Collaku said. The director of the AKT added that the country is also inviting Russian businesses to come and invest in the Albanian tourism industry. "Albanian tourism officials in May are going to join economic forums in Russia, so we can present the opportunities to invest in Albania," he added. To stimulate Russian tourism, in 2014, Albania dropped the visa regime with Russia for the summer months, from June 1 to October 1. "Now we are asking the foreign ministry to extend this period, since our strategy is to create a continuous and sustainable tourism season for a longer period," he said. However, the head of AKT sees some hurdles in building up a tourist relationship with Russia, starting with the lack of direct flights between the two countries. Matilda Naco, director of the Albanian Tourism Association, ATA, says capacities are another problem area. She told BIRN that Albania does not have the beds to handle a real Russian "touristic boom". The head of the ATA said Albania's 1,160 touristic units had only 40,000 beds, in a very fragmentized accommodation system. She also noted that 80 per cent of Albanian hotels have only 20 to 40 rooms. "Albania needs to invest in training people who deal with tourism and this is very delicate and important task," Naco emphasised. "The private sector needs to be strongly supported in this effort and the government should frame a more detailed strategy about tourism challenges, such as the one we might face with the Russians," Naco concluded.   Source: BalkanInsight
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