TIRANA, August 8
In a region shaped by centuries of conflicts, wars, and between nice beaches and troubled history, a new trend of sombre tourism is yearning to hatch from the egg-bunkers of Albania.
This is about the past. Although our past is our heritage, nobody seems to talk about a certain part of it unless there’s a bunker involved.
Bunkers, hundreds of thousands of bunkers that totally failed to meet their purpose are now successful attractions to travelers, bloggers, vloggers, and curious tourists. What they indicate is maybe dark tourism can be a way to help Albania deal with its past and heal the people that were affected by it.
To those who have seen Netflix’s Dark Tourist series, the concept is familiar, and now Pripyat is the Holly Grail for dark tourists thanks to HBO.
Often referred to like the places that we don’t talk about, due to the various feeling they convey, this alternative type of tourism is for those who want to take a journey in the dark past of a destination related to destruction, tragedy, and death.
Dark tourism is not a recent trend. Sites of remembrance such as concentration camps opened for visitors as early as 1947. In the meantime, places like Pompeii have attracted curious visitors for centuries.
Travel writers and journalists were among the first to speak about their experiences in such places referring to them as black-spot tourism and ‘milking of the macabre’.
Other definitions have been used, but most of them are related to the subcategories of dark tourism. However, Lenon and Foley from the University of Glasgow, who coined the ‘dark tourism’ term, say that the phenomenon was strongly driven by modern media. Therefore, they say that anything older than modern media falls under the category of history tourism, but it is not unconditional.
Many countries around the world are using the memory of ancient and modern conflicts and disasters for the needs of contemporary tourists. This sounds unethical, and it can be, even though the main purpose is to not forget and to keep memories alive.
The motivations of dark tourists vary from educational to reasons that can raise ethical questions. Commercialization of dark sites, voyeurism, inappropriate behavior, safety, wrong support, and misuse of values for entertainment are among the ethical issues related to dark tourism.
If there’s dark tourism there will be ethical issues.
The growing demand for new experiences and alternatives to traditional tourism make such places kind of fascinating for a lot of people. Millions of people flock to Europes every year because and many of them are interested in its wars and past conflicts.
On the other hand, communism no matter how infamous it was has a certain appeal to many. But those who want the frozen-in-time feeling of communism can go to Cuba.
To some degree, each of us is a dark tourist. If you have been or want to visit sites like the House of Terror in Budapest, Ground Zero in New York, the Catacombs of Paris, or the Berlin Wall you are or can be a potential dark tourist.
Can Dark tourism help Albania Heal?
There is no travel writer, website, blogger, magazine, who wrote about Albania, (IIA included) and didn’t mention the following:
isolated for half a century;
one of the most isolated countries on earth;
ruled with an iron fist;
Bunkers, bunkers, bunkers
Land of mystery
These are some of the ingredients of the Albanian recipe to influence tourist attraction (along with natural attractions, beaches, and cultural heritage), but with the current lack of a strategy on sustainable tourism, it would cause more harm than good.
While travelers avoid overcrowded destinations, countries affected by mass tourism are taking measures to reduce the number of visitors. Hence, Albania and its past offer an interesting option (if done ethically) for different types of tourists, especially dark ones.
Instead of considering it a honeypot for travelers, dark tourism can be a way for education and atone both Albanians and visitors.
The Germans use Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which stands for public debate within a country on a problematic period of its recent history. Hence even in Albania, dark tourism can spark the debate on the real communism terror and cruelty all over the country.
An annual event that promotes remembrance tourism in Albania is the Strait of Corfu crossing race. Experienced swimmers from different countries engage in a two miles race from Pema e Thate to Corfu Island. The event pays special tribute to the Albanian citizens that dared to escape the country during communism from this part of the Albanian coast. Many were caught, or shot, or drowned in the attempt.
Lukova and Pogadec are other sites from where Albanians tried to escape by boats or swimming.
Currently, in Tirana, where you can pay Lek 500 – 700 to read more on how your grandfather was tortured, there are a few ‘artistic’ bunkers to visit. But the real horror happened in prisons, labor, and internment camps that nobody mentions where they are.
And there is also Shkodra, a long sad chapter of suffering, repression, and prosecution.
To a large extent, Dark tourism in Albania is connected to communism. With the attempt of creating a ‘new world’ the establishment of the communist regime in Albania following World War II set in motion a chain of events that would kill thousands of Albanian citizens.
Prison and persecution sites, internment and labor camps
During the 50 years of the communist dictatorship, Albanians served 914,000 years in prison and 256,146 years in internment camps.
There were 23 prisons and 48 internment and labor camps across Albania.
Forced labor camps were detention facilities where inmates were forced into penal labor including wetland drainage, river modification, residential and industrial construction, mining, agriculture, etc. In most cases, labor camps were temporary. They consisted of barracks built by the labor site. In many other cases, the camps were permanent. The inmates were tortured, deliberately left to die of hunger and sickness, or executed.
The only civil airport in Albania, currently Tirana International Airport (TIA) was constructed by political inmates in 1955-1957, but nothing is mentioned on the official website of the airport or anywhere else.
Qemal Stafa Stadium
The former main stadium in Albania, which is now transformed into a new stadium, was completed by the political prisoners in 1945. The construction of the stadium was started by the Italians, but it was interrupted by WWII. Over 300 political inmates worked every day in the construction site.
The new stadium preserved the historical facade, designed by the Italian architect and urbanist Gherardo Bosio, but nothing was said so far about the memory of the political prisoners.
Agimi Residential buildings in Tirana
Over 600 inmates worked for two years for the construction of Agimi Palaces, in the former bloc area.
Juba canal in Durres
More than 800 inmates worked for the construction of the Juba canal in the Rrushkulli area. The canal was five km long, ten meters wide, and six meters deep.
Maliqi Marsh draining
Hundreds of prisoners worked in Maliqi marsh, Korca area between 1947- 1952. The inmates were divided into three camps in the villages of Vlocisht, Orman-Pojan, and Nishavec.
The construction of the Kucova Air Base was started by the Italians in the 30s and it was completed between 1948 and 1952 by political prisoners. The labor camp was built in Ura Vajgurore.
Other works built by prisoners include:
Bedeni irrigation canal, in Kavaja, 15 km long
Peqin-Elbasan railway and Bishqemi rail tunnel
Gramsh – Lozhan road
Peqin – Kavaja canal, 50 km long
Vlashuku canal in Myzeqe
Torovica labor camp in Lezha area
Terrace farming in Saranda coastline
Construction of the salt plane in Skrofotina in Vlora, the partial draining of Narta wetland, and the pumping station in Pishporo
Construction of the oil refinery and residential buildings in Ballsh
Spaci Prison and Minne in Mirdita
The Copper Mine in Puka, Munella mountain
The copper mine in Rubik
Laci labor camp
Currently, there is no official research on the internment camps, prisoners, mass graves, or other crimes committed during the communist dictatorship. Labor campsites, internment camps, and prisons from the communist era are located all over the country. Most are completely unknown while a few gained little attention as places of remembrance. Spaci Prison and the notorious Labor Camp of Tepelena are among them. See below the virtual museum of Tepelena Camp
Meanwhile, in the capital city, the National Historical Museum has a Communist Terror Pavilion.
One of the most disturbing items one can see there is a pair of trousers made of small pieces of clothes patched together with human hair instead of thread.
Other sites that are currently considered tourist attractions are the Bunk’arts and the House of Leaves. Read below.
Relicks of the old regime
Bunkers in Albania
Bunkers or the concrete legacy of the paranoiac Communist regime in Albania.
Once built to face any possible foreign attack and also to keep Albanians busy with work, they are considered a symbol of the country. There are three types of bunker structures in Albania, mountainside, fortified structure, and underground.
The huge number of cement and steel mushroom-shaped structures that range from 175,000 to 750,000 gets a lot of attention from international visitors. On the other hand, Albanians are used to the presence of bunkers all over the country, and they try to reuse the bunkers somehow by turning them into cafes, restaurants, beach bars, and as a form of public memory. Two large bunkers in the capital city Tirana were turned into museums and opened to the public.
The atomic shelter opened for visitors in November 2014 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Liberation. It was built secretly between 1972 and 1978 to protect the elite of the People’s Republic of Albania in case of a nuclear attack. Located in the northwest periphery of Tirana and dug 100 meters under a mountain, this 2,685 m² shelter is composed of 5 levels and 106 rooms, a real “five-star” complex. The idea for this extravagant building came to Enver Hoxha after he visited North Korea in 1964.
Bunk’Art exhibition is a strong symbol, bringing together creativity and free expression of artists within a structure that represents dictatorship and censorship. Visitors can have a coffee in a real communist-era canteen.
How to get there: Porcelani Blue Bus or by taxi
The former nuclear tunnel of the Interior Ministry was built between 1981 and 1986 and it was one of the last major works made during the communist era in the frame of bunkerization project. It consists of an underground structure of 24 rooms and an apartment for the Minister of Interior and a communication room. The structure never served its initial purpose as a nuclear shelter, even for training reasons. The current entrance and exit were added to the structure when it was adopted for public visitors. Previously, the bunker was accessed only through the Interior Ministry.
How to get there: Bunk’Art 2 is situated close to Skanderbeg Square and the Clock Tower.
The Pyramid of Tirana
One of the most recognized landmarks of the Albanian capital falls under the communist tourism category. The 11,800 square meters monolith was built as a museum dedicated to former communist leader Enver Hoxha. The structure will be revitalized and transformed into a multi-functional center for education, tech, art, and culture. The building seen from the front looks like a pyramid, but from an aerial view, it can be associated with the double-headed eagle symbol.
Yes, grave tourism is a subcategory of dark tourism and it’s quite common in Albania. Memorial cemeteries of historical, archeological, and cultural importance are visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year.
Skenderbeu Memorial in Lezha
The memorial is the burial place of National Hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu and the site of the League of Lezha, where Skanderbeg unified all the Albanian feudal princes against the Ottoman empire. The memorial was designed by renowned sculptor Odise Pascali and architect Latif Lazimi.
The Memorial is situated at the central part of the ancient city of Lisus and it includes the walls of Saint Nicolas Church. Skanderbeg died on 17 January 1448, 551 years ago, but rumor has it the tomb was raided years later by the Ottomans who took the remains and used them as lucky charms.
Other memorials include the Martyrs’ Cemeteries. Albanians have always paid tribute to the sacrifice of those who have fallen for the country. Every city in Albania has a martyrs’ memorial cemetery (Varrezat e Deshmoreve). Albanians visit the martyrs’ cemeteries on May 5 and on November 28 or November 29 depending on their political party identification.
Frasheri Brothers, Faik Konica, and Mid’hat Frasheri memorials at Tirana Lake Park
The cemeteries of the British and German soldiers fallen in Albania are located at Tirana Lake Park. When the cemetery of the German soldiers was inaugurated, the then Ambassador said: “We will not stop fighting for peace and against oblivion.”
Currently, a memorial dedicated to the Holocaust victims is under construction at Tirana Lake Park.
Yet hundreds of politically prosecuted families still haven’t found the remains of their loved ones, and no memorial was built for them.