Unspoiled Albania Promotes New Eco-Sensitive Tourism Industry

AS far as the eye can see, the blue-green waters of the Adriatic splash against Divjaks wide, sandy beaches. A flock of sheep graze on scrub and dune grass, stopping occasionally to watch fishermen tend their nets from wooden rowing dories.

While the scene is breathtaking, accommodation is less spectacular. The only development in the entire area is a ceaseless line of igloo-shaped concrete bunkers and a cluster of decaying tourist cabins.

But the Ministry of Tourism is trying to change all that. Under an ambitious plan, Albania would build a half-dozen upscale resort villages on its Adriatic and Ionian coasts by the end of the decade, increasing its beach-front capacity by 6,000 beds. Later those figures would more than double. Cruise ships would call on ports in Durres and Vlore, business hotels would appear in Tirana, Vlore, and Shkoder, and the whole coastline would become a tax-haven for yachts.

``We'll build carefully targeted village-style resorts on the coast, in the mountains, and along the lakefronts,'' says Deputy Tourism Minister Lazarin Mazreku. ``We want to concentrate on medium- and higher-income tourists to prevent mass tourism and the destruction it brings to the natural surroundings.''

But the plan hinges on foreign investment to pay for the scheme, and that has been slow in coming to this tiny Balkan country. Until recently, this was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Fear of its neighbors, travel restrictions, and a complete ban on private car ownership left the country with few paved roads, an inadequate rail and telecommunications system, and a shortage of hotel beds and office space.

``The lack of infrastructure is a real barrier to investment,'' says Iris Semini at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) office in Tirana. ``But the biggest problem is the questions of land ownership. Former owners and their families are trying to make claims on nationalized property, so there's a lot of uncertainty about ownership.''

Regional instability is another obstacle: Relations with Greece and Serbian-dominated Montenegro are poor, and the war in Bosnia threatens to spread to neighboring Macedonia and Kosovo.

STILL, Albania's tourism potential is difficult to ignore. While the Yugoslav portions of Lake Shkoder and Ohrid have been tourist destinations for decades, the Albanian halves of both lakes are largely unspoiled by development.

Hotel projects represent the single largest source of foreign investment, accounting for an estimated $55 million of the $210 million invested in the country to date. The largest projects are concentrated in Tirana. Austria's Rogner Group is building an $18 million, 140-room business hotel near Tirana University; Rogner will hold a 72 percent stake, with the EBRD retaining 28 percent. The EBRD is also involved in the $20 million renovation of the high-rise Hotel Tirana in the city center, while Kuwaiti investors are building a third business hotel in the city park.

Despite unmet demand for hotel beds in the capital, the government has had to grant generous tax holidays and duty waivers, sometimes lasting five years. Officials say that the employment and services the new hotels provide will be ample compensation.

But in developing resort hotels in the countryside, authorities say they hope to implement the first strategy on the continent founded on environmental sensitivity. ``We'd like to avoid the mistakes other countries have made,'' Mr. Mazreku says. This philosophy is central to the official strategy program prepared by the EBRD and the British arm of the consulting firm Touche Ross.

Albania's coastal development strategy will be built around clusters of villas or low-rise buildings. A cap of 100 tourist beds per hectare (2.47 acres) would be set for future developments, and properties on the cliff-bound Ionic coast would be designated an ``exclusive tourist area.''

Only 10,000 foreigners visited Albania in 1990, so the target of 235,000 by the end of the decade is probably wishful thinking. ``With the war in Yugoslavia, investment is going to remain sluggish,'' a Western diplomat says. ``But there's certainly a great deal of potential in [tourism].''

AS far as the eye can see, the blue-green waters of the Adriatic splash against Divjaks wide, sandy beaches. A flock of sheep graze on scrub and dune grass, stopping occasionally to watch fishermen tend their nets from wooden rowing dories.

While the scene is breathtaking, accommodation is less spectacular. The only development in the entire area is a ceaseless line of igloo-shaped concrete bunkers and a cluster of decaying tourist cabins.

But the Ministry of Tourism is trying to change all that. Under an ambitious plan, Albania would build a half-dozen upscale resort villages on its Adriatic and Ionian coasts by the end of the decade, increasing its beach-front capacity by 6,000 beds. Later those figures would more than double. Cruise ships would call on ports in Durres and Vlore, business hotels would appear in Tirana, Vlore, and Shkoder, and the whole coastline would become a tax-haven for yachts.

``We'll build carefully targeted village-style resorts on the coast, in the mountains, and along the lakefronts,'' says Deputy Tourism Minister Lazarin Mazreku. ``We want to concentrate on medium- and higher-income tourists to prevent mass tourism and the destruction it brings to the natural surroundings.''

But the plan hinges on foreign investment to pay for the scheme, and that has been slow in coming to this tiny Balkan country. Until recently, this was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Fear of its neighbors, travel restrictions, and a complete ban on private car ownership left the country with few paved roads, an inadequate rail and telecommunications system, and a shortage of hotel beds and office space.

``The lack of infrastructure is a real barrier to investment,'' says Iris Semini at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) office in Tirana. ``But the biggest problem is the questions of land ownership. Former owners and their families are trying to make claims on nationalized property, so there's a lot of uncertainty about ownership.''

Regional instability is another obstacle: Relations with Greece and Serbian-dominated Montenegro are poor, and the war in Bosnia threatens to spread to neighboring Macedonia and Kosovo.

STILL, Albania's tourism potential is difficult to ignore. While the Yugoslav portions of Lake Shkoder and Ohrid have been tourist destinations for decades, the Albanian halves of both lakes are largely unspoiled by development.

Hotel projects represent the single largest source of foreign investment, accounting for an estimated $55 million of the $210 million invested in the country to date. The largest projects are concentrated in Tirana. Austria's Rogner Group is building an $18 million, 140-room business hotel near Tirana University; Rogner will hold a 72 percent stake, with the EBRD retaining 28 percent. The EBRD is also involved in the $20 million renovation of the high-rise Hotel Tirana in the city center, while Kuwaiti investors are building a third business hotel in the city park.

Despite unmet demand for hotel beds in the capital, the government has had to grant generous tax holidays and duty waivers, sometimes lasting five years. Officials say that the employment and services the new hotels provide will be ample compensation.

But in developing resort hotels in the countryside, authorities say they hope to implement the first strategy on the continent founded on environmental sensitivity. ``We'd like to avoid the mistakes other countries have made,'' Mr. Mazreku says. This philosophy is central to the official strategy program prepared by the EBRD and the British arm of the consulting firm Touche Ross.

Albania's coastal development strategy will be built around clusters of villas or low-rise buildings. A cap of 100 tourist beds per hectare (2.47 acres) would be set for future developments, and properties on the cliff-bound Ionic coast would be designated an ``exclusive tourist area.''

Only 10,000 foreigners visited Albania in 1990, so the target of 235,000 by the end of the decade is probably wishful thinking. ``With the war in Yugoslavia, investment is going to remain sluggish,'' a Western diplomat says. ``But there's certainly a great deal of potential in [tourism].''

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