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Discovering Albania

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Since 2013 Albania has been part of a regional project called the Dinaric Arc Parks that covers 8 countries in the Western Balkans and is funded by the Norwegian Ministry Foreign Affairs through WWF-Norway.

This week I am meeting the Albanian team working on the projectand visiting two national parks: Valbone in the north and Divjake-Karavasta on the coast. Landing in Tirana is like landing smack in the middle of summer. After a cold and rainy Oslo it is pure bliss to see the sun and feel temperatures reaching the plus twenties. My first impression of Tirana consists of big contrasts and the fact that traffic rules seem optional. Crossing the street may take some courage for an outsider. Modern buildings stand next to dilapidated houses and on the way from the airport I see an old woman keeping a small flock of sheep on leashes. The roadsides are green and the mountains in the background are beckoning.

The Accursed Mountains

The next day we head to Valbona National Park which is located in the Albanian Alps, also called the Accursed Mountains (it was those trying to conquer Albania who gave the name). The park is about 8000 ha and borders on Kosovo to the northeast and Montenegro to the northwest. Valbona Valley lies at 800-1.000 metres above sea level and offers breathtaking views and amazing hospitality.

The valley is a five hour drive from Tirana and we go there via Kosovo as the roads are better there. Sky blue water and white rapids in the Valbona River, snow-covered peaks and slopes covered in beech forests sporting spring leaves make an unforgettable combination. Despite the remote location tourists find their way – we see a large group of English cyclists in the hotel who are heading to the park, and in the park we meet a guy from Hong Kong. If people from as far as Hong Kong can find their way to this remote treasure, European tourists can certainly do the same – with a bit of a help from the Dinaric Arc Parks project.

The hospitality of Valbona is well known not only in Albania but also in the region. I learn that until very recently people were hosting tourists free of charge as this is the part of the culture here. It took the locals a while to get their head round the idea of charging guests for staying. We visit one of the guest houses in the area which belong to Kol Gjoni, a man looking quintessentially Albanian in his national dress and with an impressive moustache. He used to harvest timber illegally until he opened the guest house. He says he has not looked back and that he is really enjoying making his guests happy.

We meet a number of local stakeholders in Valbona including the mayor of the town of Bajram-Curri and the mayor of Margegaj commune. Their engagement is very encouraging. They see the park as their main resource and are committed to managing it sustainably while developing tourism in the area. With such a dedicated local community I have no doubt that the Valbona valley will prosper, especially since they are about to join the European Charter of Sustainable Tourism – with the help of the project.

The home of pelicans

After the visit to Valbona we are off to the coast, to Divjake-Karavasta National Park. It is the largest lagoon in Albania (and one of the largest in the Adriatic Sea). The park is home to the Dalmatian pelican and other birds and constitutes an important Ramsar site. It comprises both the lagoon and the pine forests.

We get to see a colony of the pelicans through the telescope. About 35-40 pairs are nesting in the lagoon, constituting about 5 percent of the world population of the species. Locals have fishing rights in the lagoon but there are no conflicts with the pelicans and people consider them a symbol of the area.

In the coastal zone near the beach we find three species of orchids and a pine forest that looks like a good habitat for various species. Of course there are still things that can be improved. At the moment the vast sandy beach is used for driving but with the right management this park can be improved. We pass some bunkers near the beach – a reminder of bleak times in Albanian history during which the country was separated from the rest of the world. Luckily those times are behind us and now Albania is a part of Europe again.

Future vision

When I talk to Zamir Dedej, Director of INCA (Nature Conservation Institute in Albania), a local NGO partner of WWF, he says that when it comes to tourism, Albania can primarily bring its nature to the table. Greece and Italy beat them at historical sites, while Croatia and Montenegro have better tourism infrastructure. Therefore it is of vital importance to protect Albanian nature resources.

I would like to wish my Albanian colleagues best of luck in their work because I have now seen a snapshot of what Albania can offer to tourists and it is truly amazing. Why not consider Albania when you plan your next holiday – you will not regret it!

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