ETN News: George W. Bush was given a hero's welcome in Albania this weekend. The former communist state in south-east Europe has opened its doors also to the world as an emerging tourist destination. eTurboNews Europe editor David Browne has been touring Albania and in the first of a series of reports from there he gives his impressions of a country full of hope and aspirations.
Albania is a country blessed with natural assets of rugged mountain landscape, a long Adriatic coastline and a prime geographical location across the sea from Italy, with Greece on its southern border. This is a country poised to become the new jewel of the Mediterranean region and it aims to boost its potential as a tourist destination.
The visit this week by President George W. Bush to the capital, Tirana, has given a welcome boost to the media profile of this nation which is little known outside south-east Europe.
Albaniaâ€™s only high profile citizen with world-wide recognition was the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the nun who became renowned for her work among the poor in India. Albaniaâ€™s international airport has been renamed in her honor Mother Teresa Airport, and has a new steel and glass passenger terminal that celebrates the progress Albania has made in adjusting to modern times.
The government of Albania has now made tourism its top priority for development and foreign currency earner. Albania has seen its nearest neighbors, Greece, Montenegro and Croatia succeed in the tourism sector and now it wants a share of that success.
The US international development agency, USAID, is actively engaged in providing training in the tourism sector to increase its competitiveness and to raise the standards of workers and service providers, to meet the demands of a global market.
Albania is Europeâ€™s newest democracy with a population of 3.2 million. It has emerged from decades of isolation and oppressive Communist rule and has high ambitions of joining NATO and the European Union.
Elections in 1992 ended 47 years of communist rule and the country has struggled since then to stabilize its government and its fragile economy. Lack of investment in infrastructure has left many parts of the country with poor roads and communications and a loss-making rail system that is subsidized by the government. Albania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
During the conflict that led to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1999, almost half a million ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo under the threat of ethnic cleansing by the forces of the notorious Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic. Many thousands more left Albania altogether for a new life overseas and money from their earnings, remittances, are a significant factor in the economy of families who stayed home.
Sitting on the esplanade of Saranda, Albaniaâ€™s most southern city and coastal resort, I spoke to two enterprising young men who had recently opened a bar. It wasnâ€™t doing much business and I asked them where everybody was on a Saturday night. â€śThere is no-oneâ€ť they said. â€śOur season is very short and it is early now. But we know that cruise ships are coming soon.â€ť
Cruise lines have indeed discovered the Albanian cities of Saranda and Durres as ports of call and curious day trippers from the Greek island of Corfu are now a common sight. From the daily ferry services. â€śThey come for only a short time and we want them to spend money in Albania, not just on the ships and in Corfuâ€ť said Tony, my bar tender. He was not going to leave Albania like many of his friends, but was instead determined to make a living for himself in business under the new open market economy. Tourism was the answer and provided Tony and Nico and their friends a means of making a modest income through their own hard work and long hours.
New hotels are being built in Saranda and older ones are being converted from state ownership to private enterprises and modernized for a discriminating foreign clientele. The Butrinti Hotel in Saranda is an example, with its seaside location and high service standards; it is one of only a handful of hotels to be awarded five stars officially by the ministry of tourism.
Tourism and hotel development have brought secure employment and prospects for local people and trade with local farmers and food producers. With these have come high hopes and confidence in a future free of communist-style centralized economic development. Tourism is seen here not as a leisure activity but as a business opportunity and a livelihood.