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ALBANIA: Saving Beaches for Others, and Itself

Claudia Ciobanu

TIRANA, Jul 3 2007 (IPS) - Albania has launched a new programme to save its beaches for tourists – and from tourists.

Given its need for income from tourism, Albania cannot turn away from development of infrastructure for visitors. Which means that “Albania is not in a position to make great sacrifices for the environment,” Arian Gace, national coordinator for the Global Environment Facility (GEF) small grants programme told IPS. But there is still much to preserve.

Home to 3.2 million people, Albania is among the poorest countries in Europe. Most of its national industry collapsed with the fall of state socialism in the early 1990s.

Much hope for revival now rests on tourism. Foreign visitors are still to discover the pristine beaches in the south or the inhabited fortresses in Berat and Girokastra.

“This country has astonishing nature, which is entirely unknown to people who come here,” says Gent Mati from the tourism agency Outdoors Albania. Mati mentions primarily the “great sea coast, sandy, rocky and very different.”

The coast stretches 470 km along the Adriatic to the west and the Ionian Sea further south. The popularity of the Dalmatian region in Croatia and of the Italian and Greek Mediterranean coasts suggests that the economy of Albania could benefit enormously from exploitation of its seashore.

But mass tourism has a flip side; it damages the environment and disrupts the rhythm of local communities. And that has led Albanian authorities to promote eco-tourism, and not just mass tourism.

The government launched a ‘strategy and action plan for the development of the Albanian tourism sector based on cultural and environmental tourism’ last year. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting this programme with more than 3.5 million dollars.

Preserving natural habitat will not be an easy task. “Albania cannot afford the luxury to keep the entire coast undeveloped and in a natural state,” Gace said. Mass tourism will be unavoidable in some areas, he said. But some income from mass tourism could pay for preservation of other regions for eco-tourism, he said.

A good deal of the northern coast has been damaged already, and Gace is looking to programmes to preserve the south. Efforts are being made already to preserve the coast, he said. Wastewater processing facilities are being set up in most cities on the southern coast.

But eventually the coast can be protected only if more areas are granted protection status, Gace said. According to a study published by the Council of Europe, protected areas in Albania cover a surface of 166.611 hectares, 5.8 percent of the country’s area.

Some parts of the coast are far too damaged to be presented as attractions. “Swimming in the sea at Durres is like entering a lake next to an oil distillery,” said Giorgos Adoniu, a Greek tourist travelling along the Albanian coast. “The water was greenish, and the bottom of the sea covered in slime.”

Situated less than an hour’s drive from capital Tirana, Durres is the second largest city in Albania. It also has the second largest concentration of industry.

The beaches around Durres are the most popular holiday destination for Tirana residents. People have learnt to ignore the poor quality of the water.

“Pollution from sewage that comes straight into the sea from nearby houses and hotels is alarming for the future of tourism here,” says Xhemal Mato, executive director of the Ecomovement Centre.

But conditions improve radically as one travels south. Vlora and Saranda are surrounded by beautiful, unspoilt beaches. But construction is now booming here too. Many of the new hotels and restaurants are unauthorised, as in many parts of Albania. This is where Gace suggests authorities could intervene to tax builders, and use that revenue for protection of remote shores.

The drive on a narrow mountain road along the southern coast offers breathtaking views. The only signs of human presence are the traditional villages and, in a rather different way, some of the half million bunkers Communist leader Enver Hoxha built during the Cold War years.

If kept unspoilt, the small beaches of the south will remain ideal destinations for eco-tourism. In Ksamil, a small beach close to Saranda, one can rent a water bicycle for less than three euro to little islets, all uninhabited. Few foreign tourists come here.

“It’s not necessary to over-develop in order to attract tourists to such wonderful places,” says Adoniu.

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