When I mention to people that I passed briefly through Albania on my Europe trip this summer, many of them (after asking the compulsory “Where is that?” question) want to know what this small Balkan country is like.
When confronted with this question, I usually pause, make my “thinking” face, and then answer thus:
Albania is… weird.
There are more than 750,000 one-man concrete bunkers scattered across the countryside, dotting the landscape like giant mutated mushrooms. Stuffed animals (like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh) hang from half-completed homes and buildings to ward off evil spirits. A shake of the head means “yes,” while a nod means “no.” And former military bases now serve as seaside resorts.
Yes, this nation of 3 million is a bit quirky and difficult to describe. There are contradictions here upon contradictions, mostly thanks to the country's post-WWII history — a history that was characterized by communism, isolation, and an extremely paranoid leader.
In fact, most of Albania's current reality can be traced back to that paranoid leader, , who ruled with increasing suspicion of the wider world until his death in 1985. He is the one responsible for the plethora of bunkers around the country. And for the isolation and fear of the outside world that made them seem necessary.
Our Busabout guide — a young Croatian guy with a keen interest in politics and economics — told us that, during Hoxha's reign, Albania was even more insular and isolated that present-day North Korea. The country levied no taxes and incurred no debt. It exported no goods, and became entirely self-sufficient in order to avoid reliance on the outside world.
This, of course, meant that when Albania finally shook off its one-party system in the early 1990s, it found itself in a state of stagnation. Even today, Albania is regarded as one of the poorest, least-developed countries in Europe.
But you kind of have to give the country a break. Twenty years really isn't that long when it comes to history, and Albania certainly is trying.
These days, even though Hoxha's legacy lives on in Albania, the country is clearly trying to move on from his extreme form of leadership — and it's this fact that lends the country many of its interesting quirks.
Under Hoxha, self-sufficiency was name of the game. Which means that today, Albanians have one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Under Hoxha, atheism became the official state religion. But today, people in Albania enjoy incredible religious tolerance. In the capital of Tirana, you can find a church right next to a mosque, with a synagogue just a block away.
Under Hoxha, the outside world was not to be trusted. But, today, Albania seeks to invite the outside world in, hoping to turn to tourism to boost its economy like neighboring Montenegro is doing.
Tourism in Albania
The country has done a lot to entice visitors in recent years. The formerly dull Tirana has been splashed with bright colors. New roads are being built to replaced twisting, narrow, pitted ones. And coastal cities have been transformed into summer retreats.
Well, sort of.
As someone currently studying tourism, visiting one of Albania's developing touristic areas was fascinating. And also a bit depressing. It was spending a night in the town of Durres that really allowed me a glimpse into how tourism is developing in Albania.
And let's just say that it's not particularly pretty.
As Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe guide says:
Durres was once Albania's capital. Its 10km-long beach is a lesson in unplanned development; hundreds of hotels stand side by side, barely giving breathing space to the beach and contributing to the urban-waste problem that causes frequent outbreaks of skin infections in swimmers.
Not exactly a glowing recommendation, is it?
And, while Durres wasn't actually THAT bad, the beach WAS dirty, and the town felt a bit confused. On the one hand, we had a super nice pool and white tablecloths at our beachside resort. On the other, dumpsters overflowed in town and little kids pestered every foreigner they saw for money.
This is NOT the way to develop tourism in a country. But it's a product of Albania's long isolation and its desperation to catch up.
The Future of Albania
To me, Albania is kind of like an awkward teenager still not quite sure how to handle its changing body. It's a little weird and not very cool, and yet is trying desperately to fit in. Perhaps a little too desperately, as places like Durres hint at.
I can understand Albania, though. As someone who was a weird teenager herself, I sympathize with the country and its struggles. It's trying to overcome its past and become prosperous, but it's not an easy road. Nothing is easy when you've spent the past 5 decades in utter isolation from the rest of the world. You'd be a little weird, too.
There's definitely hope for Albania, though. It DOES have things going for it, like its gorgeous countryside and hospitable locals. The whole Balkan region in general is an up-and-comer when it comes to international tourism. Nearby Greece has been a hot spot for years, and neighbor Montenegro is swiftly rising to become a must-visit destination in Europe.
Could Albania be next?
Maybe. But it needs to get over that adolescent weirdness first.
For more updated takes on Albania's tourism development, check out these posts from some of my travel blogger friends:
What do you think? Would you ever want to visit Albania?
*Note: I visited Albania as part of a discounted 9-day Classic Balkan Trek tour with Busabout. All opinions, however, are my own.