Setting Your Responsible Sights on the Southern Balkans
Once a well-kept secret, Albania is on the verge of being ‘discovered’ by tourists. Until 1992 a communist country closed off to the rest of the world, Albania has only recently seen greater numbers of foreign travellers venture down to its southern Balkan corner of Europe, bringing with them suitcases of western brands and influences. Not to be discouraged though, and despite a growing number of Mercedes-Benzes, Coca-Colas and Mai Tai cocktails, the country remains very Albanian. Quaint mountain villages indifferent to modern development in the cities, which also retain their own unique charm, give rise to incredible travel experiences that you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere in Europe.
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A look down Lake of Koman on the way to the Valbona Valley
Neighbouring countries have therefore already started flocking to Albania, with holidaymakers from Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Serbia tempted by the beautiful coastline and, of course, very low prices. As reported by the Albanian national media: In 2008, over 400,000 more foreign tourists visited Albania than in 2007, an increase of about 23%. So while the tough economic times of 2009 are expected to hit other summer destinations hard, tourism in Albania may experience a big lift as people look for affordable memorable holidays.
In Albania, already off the beaten track, you can really enter another world. Begin with a meander along the turquoise waters of the narrow and twisting Lake Koman flanked by jaw-droppingly steep cliffs (think Lord of the Rings). Follow this with a moderate-to-strenuous hike through the Valbona River Valley, the gorgeous jewel in the crown of northern Albania. Then descend towards the Theth Valley where you can enjoy extraordinary overnight hospitality in the traditional houses of Albania’s best-preserved alpine village. The surroundings could hardly be more stunning.
The Village House Salimaj, stunningly situated in Valbona Valley
This guided trek to local village houses is just one of many unique experiences offered by Outdoor Albania, a local Albanian adventure-travel company. Although one of many tour companies in Albania, Outdoor Albania is one with its heart in the right place. “We love our city and our country and want to show travellers the true side of Albania and for them to see and do as much as possible!” said the director of Outdoor Albania, Laura Payne, Dutch-born but now considered Albanian by many. “We want to promote the protection of the natural habitats of Albania whilst also supporting the small local communities economically. We try to involve as many actors as possible in our business, using drivers, guides, craft makers, mule/horse porters, winemakers, etc., on our tours.”
Evident in tours like the trek to local village houses, Outdoor Albania believes in responsible tourism. This community-minded approach saw Outdoor Albania selected for a project sponsored by the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group) to develop tourism infrastructure in the Balkans. One valuable outcome was the creation of the first locally-owned and -operated accommodation- and tour-booking Web portal for Tirana and a travel portal covering the Albanian Alps, both part of the whl.travel global grassroots network of travel websites.
Rafting down the Osumi kanyo, one hour south of Berat in south-central Albania
It doesn’t stop there, though; Outdoor Albania has been working to improve the local environment and alleviate the pressures from social issues felt by certain groups in Tirana. Outdoor Albania continues to promote a recycling initiative to hotels, one outgrowth of which is a programme for Romany women to collect the discarded aluminium cans as a source of small income. Alongside this, Outdoor Albania is convincing hotels to showcase the artwork of local disadvantaged youth so that travellers can purchase a unique souvenir, the proceeds of which directly benefit the community.
With tour operators like Outdoor Albania helping lead the way in Albanian tourism, no wonder their future looks bright. When considering your next holiday destination, keep Albania in mind and, especially, organizations like Outdoor Albania who work responsibly for the benefit of both guests and hosts.