26 March, 2016
It’s got beaches with clear blue waters that shimmer with the best of the Mediterranean; there are enough mountains and rivers for endless days of hiking and rafting; and to the south sit UNESCO World Heritage sites and castles that have seen the rise and fall of great empires like the Byzantine and Ottoman. But there’s one thing you won’t find: tourists.
Welcome to Albania, the Cinderella of European travel destinations. While some Balkan countries, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, have seen a boom in tourism over the past decade, this long coastal country sandwiched between Greece, Serbia and Montenegro continues to remain off the radar. To many, Albania is still viewed as the poor, autocratic wasteland that it was during its 40 years of communist dictatorship that finally came to an end in 1991. Then there was the civil war of ’97 and the refugee crisis caused by the neighboring Kosovo conflict two years later. Not the most postcard-friendly imagery. But the reasons that once stood in the way of tourism are now nothing more than memories.
It truly feels wild
To anyone able to look past the troubled Balkan history, Albania is a secret treasure. “I was very surprised by how beautiful the landscape is,” says Lara Vecchio, a tourist from Milan. “It truly feels wild.” Indeed, the stunning Ceraunian mountain range remains mostly untouched, while being open to family campers or adventurous cross-country skiers. Meanwhile, Tirana, the capital, is buzzing with potential. But Albania’s crown jewel is its 296 miles of coast. Prefer pebble beaches? Got it. White sands? Got those, too. Snorkeling? Pick your spot. You might even see some shepherds walking their sheep along the shoreline.
Yet what makes Albania an especially appealing attraction, even compared to Italy or Croatia: the price tag. Good luck finding an apartment on Airbnb for $20 a night in either of those countries. In Albania, hotel deals abound. And for a three-course, traditional meal of pork sausages with cream, an assortment of salads and some surprisingly rich local wine, be ready to shell out about $6 a person. But don’t expect the infrastructure to be up to par with its competitors — air-conditioning, for example, is not a guarantee. “It’s hard to provide the high standards visitors are used to when we only get running water three times a day!” says Klajdi Pushimi, a local tour guide. And the money you save on lodging and food might go toward the flight, which can be pricey.
Still, what the country lacks in infrastructure, the people make up for in hospitality. You can’t but feel the honest warmth and candor of people who are not weary of the hordes of sweaty sunburned tourists descending on their streets like locusts. That may soon change, though. Beauty like this often doesn’t stay secret for long.