Ancient hillside fortresses, pristine beaches and unspoilt nature are just some of what Albania has to offer tourists.
The Albanian coastline features some 274 km of uninterrupted beaches, but there is so much more to explore. The Velipoja-Shëngjin area, for instance, boasts numerous cultural heritage sites, from tumulus tombs to medieval fortifications. The Castle of Lezha bears traces of Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, with a spectacular view of the Drini Valley and Shëngjin beach from 322 meters above sea level. The list goes on.
Tourism also offers many opportunities for locals: from restaurants and cafés to excursions, souvenir shops and recreational activities, such as cycling, hiking and horse-riding.
In the Velipoja-Shëngjin area, in particular, many people make a living from the tourism sector. Aurora Zylai is a birdwatching guide. Her job is her passion and, like many others, she believes that it is vital to develop tourism sustainably on this stretch of the Albanian coast.
“We need a combination of proper infrastructure, including safer roads, and knowledge on how to protect our environment,” Aurora says. “For example, we need to raise awareness of the need to conserve our unique birds and other wildlife, to recycle plastics and other materials as much as possible, and to provide signage and guidance for visitors in protected areas.”
An array of rare bird species, such as the little seagull and the sea swallow, as well as endangered species, such as the white-headed duck and the slender-billed curlew, live in the unique 44 km2 complex wetland ecosystem of the Kune-Vain and Vilun lagoons. If local roads are close or poorly maintained, traffic can disturb them, Aurora says.
The EBRD is supporting sustainable tourism in the area. A US$ 50 million investment will upgrade a number of regional and local roads, including the road between Velipoja and Shëngjin, and provide easier access. At the same time, the Bank is raising awareness of the benefits of ecotourism and encouraging the local community to protect the environment. This component of the project is supported by Italy through the Central European Initiative (CEI) Fund.
Alfred Marku is a chef in a local restaurant. Tourism has boosted employment opportunities and economic development, he says. At the same time, however, he stresses the need to keep the region’s unique character. “To develop tourism sustainably here, we have to protect our traditions, culture, environment and nature,” he says.
This is why the EBRD has explored new ways of promoting good environmental and conservation practices, especially when it comes to sensitive habitats and wildlife. Focus-group discussions, for example, have helped to establish new means of engagement and training and public-awareness activities.
Furthermore, a number of new measures will keep the local community and tourists safe ‒ pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike. They include, for example, a new cycle line, which will make give tourists greater mobility and promote green transport. Sustainable urban mobility plans for Shёngjin and Velipoja, meanwhile, will increase everyone’s safety and contribute significantly to the quality of life of inhabitants and tourists. Lastly, the project will help to promote equal opportunities for both women and men in the tourism sector.
“The coast is a fantastic place to spend our holidays,” says visitor Iris Sakej. “We can do many different activities: we can go hiking on Renci Mountain or we can spend the afternoon at the beach swimming, canoeing or paddle-boarding, not forgetting bird watching.”
There are, indeed, many ways to explore the area. The EBRD is working closely with the Albanian Development Fund and other stakeholders to improve the local infrastructure and develop tourism sustainably, so that it benefits not only tourists, but also residents.
Our work will thus provide a long-term solution to preserving the country’s unique environment, while making its natural beauty accessible to tourists from Albania and around the globe.