Albanian Riviera a victim of its success

By Birgit Ulrich

The city of Saranda on the Albanian Riviera. The huge increase in tourist numbers to Albania has led to a boom in hotel construction along this stretch of coast. Photo / Thinkstock
The city of Saranda on the Albanian Riviera. The huge increase in tourist numbers to Albania has led to a boom in hotel construction along this stretch of coast. Photo / Thinkstock

Albania was ranked as the world's top destination to be visited in 2011 by Lonely Planet and the Balkan country has been growing in popularity with tourists for several years.

One of the top attractions is what has become known as the Albanian Riviera, a 120-kilometre stretch of beaches and villages between the cities of Vlore and Sarande. However, the huge increase in tourist numbers has led to a boom in hotel construction along this stretch of coast.

"There's no sign of idyllic fishing villages and isolated sandy beaches. Hotels have been built directly on the shoreline wherever possible," complained backpacker Dirk, who together with his girlfriend picked Albania as their holiday location after reading Lonely Planet's glowing recommendation.

The couple have already had enough of the coast and have decided to head to what the travel guide calls Albania's unspoilt interior.

The number of tourists visiting Albania has almost doubled since 2008. According to figures released by the Ministry for Tourism and Sport, around two million people visited the country between January and August of this year.

The majority come from neighbouring Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, but there are also a substantial number of Greeks and Italians on the narrow Albanian beaches during the summer months.

As a consequence of the ongoing tourist boom, virtually every centimetre of coast between Vlore and Himare is covered by unsightly tower blocks.

In the southern Albanian city of Sarande near the Greek border, concrete mixers are in action around the clock in an effort to keep up with the demand for cheap holiday homes made out of concrete and styrofoam.

Sarande was once a pretty fishing village but its population has now swelled to around 30,000, with that number easily tripling during the high tourist season.

"Many hotels are never booked out but the tourists will come at some point," says one construction engineer, who is currently finishing an apartment block with a swimming pool directly on the coast.

While his building has received the necessary planning permission, many unscrupulous developers simply start construction without getting official approval.

"The authorities don't follow up every illegal construction site immediately to stop the building work in time," he says.

However, when officials are finally informed of illegal hotels, the buildings are simply demolished, resulting in countless ugly building ruins scarring the coastal landscape like rotten teeth in a healthy mouth.

Despite the potential consequences, many developers continue to build without obtaining prior planning approval.

Over 100km north of Sarande is the mountain village of Radhime, which is surrounded by olive groves and where Avni's family have lived from farming for over 200 years.

However, he has now decided to rent rooms in his house out to tourists in the summer.

"Every room has a television and a small bathroom," he says proudly.

The neighbouring traditional farmhouse is still in good condition.

"The tourists like to see how people used to live on the land," explains Avni's mother-in-law.

Interested guests can view the bedrooms and simple living room where rural family life was once centred.

For many tourists, Radhime is just a stopover point on their way south, while in the summer months the village is often bypassed entirely by the hordes of sun-hungry foreigners heading directly to the beaches.

The road zig-zags up to the 1000-metre-high mountain pass, which offers superb views of the Gulf of Gjipe and its beautiful bays and coves.

Some young business people are attempting to save what can still be saved.

For three years, Tomi Gjikuria has run Sea Turtle Camp, a small, alternative campsite in Dhermi, where visitors sleep in simple igloo tents shaded by pine trees.

Even though the campsite is situated beside one of Albania's most beautiful beaches, the nearest shop is several kilometres' walk away.

Pole Greg Deregowski is also involved in the tourist industry, and has set up a diving school.

"There are 10 perfectly preserved wrecks, marine life and a sunken freighter, all in a diving depth of five to ten metres not far from the coast," he explains.

Deregowski selected Sarande as the location for his business for a simple reason: "There are plenty of hotels in Sarande while there are also enough unemployed fishermen who I can hire to bring divers to the diving sites."

Diving is just the start, however, as Deregowski believes there is also the opportunity for huge growth in mountain-biking and hiking, areas he hopes to expand into in the near future.

- AAP

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