Albania Meets Mass Tourism

Written by Laura Mahmutaj

Imagine you live in a city, a beautiful coastal city that has some historical monuments nearby as well. You’ve seen tourists before, they’re friendly and manageable. But this year has been different, you’ve felt as if you’re a foreigner in your own country, you hear other languages more than your own, you see different faces and an overflow of movement in the streets you know so well. At this moment you can determine you are dealing with the so-called ‘massive tourism’. 

You roam the streets and notice the first positive thing: all the artisan shops and workers in the area are smiling, welcoming the tourist’s interest and purchases. Proud that parts of your culture are being shared and cherished you decide to take a stroll; turning your head left and right and see the coffee shops, restaurants, clubs, hotels, are blooming and many of the young people from your city are actively participating in the tourism services. Business is flourishing!

But then you decide to take your car and go to the beach, the traffic alone takes two hours from your day so far, and when you finally arrive the place is so crowded it feels a bit uncomfortable. Nevermind the comfort, but how do we ignore the pollution? Or better yet, how do we deal with it? And when the peak season is done and the city turns back to normal, who is going to be left with the mess of it all? Can it even go back to normal?

  • What is mass tourism?

Tourism is about emancipation. It opens doors to others and is a wonderful thing!”- says the Albanian Minister for Tourism and Environment regarding the tourist wave that our country experienced in 2023.

What we understand from the above-mentioned remark is that as of lately tourism has become an indispensable part of our lives. Over the last few years, the number of international tourist arrivals has more than doubled here in Albania, which has resulted in a significant share in our country’s trade economy. Tourism can be seen as an industry that provides opportunities to reduce economic and social disparities, conserve natural and cultural resources, and foster civic pride and social cohesion.

Mass tourism on the other hand is a form of tourism that involves the movement of a large number of people to popular holiday destinations. It is often associated with package holidays, all-inclusive resorts, and organized tours. Mass tourism aims to provide travelers with a hassle-free vacation experience, where everything from transportation to accommodation and activities is planned and delivered.

In Albania’s context, the tourism industry has reached new heights with an estimated 7.2 million visitors in the first nine months of the year 2023. It’s thanks to the mesmerizing coastline, majestic mountains and everything in between that visitors from all around the world were able to witness its wonders first-hand making it a tourist hotspot. But what influence has this ‘tourist hotspot’ brought to Albania?

  • The cultural impact

Culturally-rich countries attract culture and heritage tourists, and these are the best kinds of visitors we can welcome. They aim to visit historical buildings and attractions and crave memorable and meaningful trips. Culture and heritage tourists also stay longer and spend more money.

 Cultural tourism is not a new concept here in Albania, as it has been the unique reason international tourists visited Albania since before the 90s. Nowadays, for tourists, Albania offers several museums and galleries of cultural interest and therefore municipalities such as Berat, Krujë, Korçë, Gjirokastër etc, have become very famous cultural and heritage tourist attractions. In these last years, we can confidently say that cultural/ heritage tourism development in Albania has become a substantial factor in its evolution. 

Concerning the neglected, vandalized or polluted cultural areas, this mass of tourism provides a positive element: the monetary circulation can help maintain it. Another measure would be developing and enhancing national legislation to protect these areas and providing sanctions or police units to supervise the regulations.  

Lastly, let’s not forget the smiling artisan workers and their happiness in front of the demand to know our culture. This cultural distribution also helps the world acknowledge Albania’s rich customs and beautiful resources.
Flora Xhemani Baba, an Albanian expert in the field of tourism has participated in a debate-style activity with ‘Mass Tourism and Sustainability’ as a topic, where she has expressed her views. She expressed that the cultural heritage of our country is one of the richest in the Balkans and that tourism is the basis of development, and if treated correctly it can hugely benefit the whole population. Another expert, who sat alongside Flora as a member of the panel, Kliton Gerxhani, declared also that tourism covers 40% of export business which makes this sector one of the most powerful sectors in the country.

And it is true, we are a country blessed with enough natural and historical beauty to entertain tourists and visitors but what we lack are the means to manage these resources. Because we can’t manage this overflowing movement, we also can not properly deal with the massive crowding in the key tourist spots. These very delicate and ‘aging’ historic sites then become very prone to degradation or consumption and considering even the lack of expert renovators, the damages could become irreparable. This was the logic that the counter-panel, on which sat Artela, a young activist and Frenkli Prengaj, another expert, argued and supported. 

  • The economic Impact 

Mass tourism brings massive income. The monetary circulation it provides creates new jobs, businesses, events and attractions, thus helping diversify the local economy, it supports small businesses and helps them expand, it can help build vital relationships among and within local communities, it encourages the development and maintenance of new/ existing community amenities etc. Tourism companies also contribute in the form of investments by building new facilities or by investing in local businesses. 

One prevailing issue is that the tourism industry, even though it’s one of the biggest employers, offers very limited or seasonal employment. In the context of Albania’s youth, it’s not an appealing sector and not a regulated one at that. However, this is an issue that has been addressed by many governmental initiatives in cooperation with regional municipalities or international bodies. To refer to the lack of involvement of youth in tourism sectors, it is necessary to note the lack of responsiveness of the education system to the needs of the labor market in the tourism and hospitality sector, rather than lack of desire. Moreover, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and European Union are also working with the Albanian government to improve this particular issue. The newly created Sector Skills Council in Tourism and Hospitality in Albania will help establish a list of the professional and vocational qualifications that are most urgently needed by tour operators, hotels and other tourism firms in Albania, and promote those qualifications in the local education system. Moreover, the Albanian government approved on 29/06/2023 a decision that grants students who choose the branches of agriculture and tourism scholarships in the amount of the minimum salary every month.

Another issue brought to light by Artela, the young activist, was concerning the road infrastructure, not designed to handle the amount of overload. As an effect, the traffic jams could last hours and consumption/ degradation of road infrastructure could become a very problematic element. But solutions have been provisioned even for these cases by state authorities in cooperation with international bodies. For example, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in cooperation with European Union are supporting an implementation of a programme that will reconstruct 100 km of local/ regional roads, improving the connectivity to local tourist sites and the quality of the country’s tourism offer. These projects will ensure faster and better routes to follow for the purpose of tourist expeditions and also guarantee faster and safer travels. Boosting tourism in these areas will also allow Albania to extend its tourist season beyond the summer months, to include the rest of the year. A positive impact is that improved infrastructure due to the mass-tourism phenomenon helps and serves locals as much as tourists.

  • The environmental impact 

The common belief concerning the environmental impact is overall negative, concentrated on the massive pollution it causes. This pollution is materialized by the garbage produced and not recycled by the visitors, acoustic pollution, the mass produce of fossil fuels needed to bring tourists here, the gas emissions from extreme traffic jams etc. 

All of the above-mentioned concerns are valid reasons, but as a counter argument we will highlight Albania’s approach to this matter:

‘The environment is synonymous to wealth in terms of ecosystems, and is also an economic resource that must be used carefully and strategically, and we are aware of the institutional, social and moral obligation to properly manage and protect this national wealth in the interest of citizens and future generations.’- states the Ministry of Tourism and Environment of Albania.

This goes to show Albania’s goodwill to maintain a healthy environment and undertake policies that align with protecting biodiversity and natural assets in the face of mass tourism’s pollution concerns.

Albania is also home to many tourism organizations that support the creation of sustainable ethics in the context of tourism. We can mention ATOA Albania that has been very vocal about their vision on building a sustainable tourism sector, Albania Tourism Union which is another Association that contributes to tourism sustainability, Albania Responsible Travel Initiative as an Organization whose main goal is promoting responsible travel practices. Their main initiatives include optimizing the sustainable tourism resources and value chains within the country, linking tourism and conservation of natural resources, designing projects in the field of Albanian tourism development, creating a positive climate for tourism business etc.

  • What about Ecotourism? 

Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’. What Artela argued in her discussion was that even though this is a decent mentality to follow when visiting one’s country, it still remains only a mentality and not a specific measure, it’s a choice of the tourist to be mindfully eco or not.
Nonetheless Albania promotes and encourages it immensely. Kumbaro, the minister of tourism and environment has expressed lately that what Albania needs is tourism that is friendly to the environment, responsible and sustainable. It has underlined that the focus of this sector should be on cultural heritage, gastronomy, hiking, rafting, nature and not limited only in certain areas.

What makes the initiative for ecotourism more realistic for our country is also the fact that we are part of the DestiMED Plus Project, whose main goal is to support sustainable tourism in the West Mediterranean and beyond. What DestiMED Plus has accomplished in Albania is the offering of new solutions that capitalized outcomes from previous projects and applied them towards protected area ecotourism. It has also developed in particular tools for measuring and improving the sustainability of ecotourism products, incorporating socio-economic, governance and conservation indicators, as well as for building capacity among local ecotourism stakeholders. The existence of this project goes to show that ecotourism in Albania is not only an utopian ideal but is a very achievable goal, measurable by indicators. This EU-backed initiative demonstrates that Albania does not lack the means nor the resources to make ecotourism work for its country in the face of a growing tourism industry.

Mass tourism might initially have a negative connotation by the wording, but if we weigh the pros and cons of this occurrence, one could figure out that this kind of tourism leans more towards the beneficial part.This activity is key for the economic development of any city lucky enough to offer the elements that attract tourists. More specifically it has immensely benefited Albania these past years. Adding to this it’s also a way to enhance cultural communication and mutual understanding among tourists and locals.

Our country does not lack beauty and these late tourism trends have proved it. Even though this immense wave of visitors has presented its own difficulties as we mentioned, the pollution, over-consumption, limited infrastructure causing extreme traffic, insufficient tourism services etc; it’s also the other side of the medal, the boost in economy, the revitalization of customs and art forms, garnering attention from international media outlets across the globe, sharing our culture; which are elements welcomed dearly in our country.