The novel coronavirus outbreak has grounded the Albanian hospitality and travel industry and the country could see a considerable decline in tourist arrivals this year. While the COVID-19 impact on the domestic economy is inevitable, hundreds of travel and tourism jobs in Albania are at risk.
In an interview with Invest in Albania, Ricardo Fahrig from, Zbulo, an adventure tourism tour operator, says that while the two earthquakes of 2019 had little to no effect on his business, the coronavirus has him concerned on how this industry can be helped so tour agencies, hospitality services, and other businesses don’t layout staff. He also points out that this time of crisis is important to think about the need for proper management of nature, sustainable tourism models, and innovation.
Please, kindly make a short description of Zbulo and its activity:
When did you start, what’s your main focus?
Who are your clients and what attracts them to discover Albania?
Zbulo! Discover Albania is a Tirana-based incoming tour operator, we are specialized in active adventures on foot, wheels and snow where we cater for both individuals and small groups. Since 2015 we welcome travelers under the Zbulo brand but have been active in tourism for ten years. Beyond running trips, we engage in tourism development, for example helping create the award-winning Peaks of the Balkans Trail and other local and regional hiking and biking trails. Our office team of six works with around 25 tour guides and a network of more than 650 local partners, many of them family-run businesses in rural areas.
Our clients are active and culturally curious travelers, on average they’re in their 50s, hold university degrees and work office jobs, there are slightly more women than men. The majority of them arrive from German-speaking and anglophone countries, Benelux and Scandinavia. Ten years ago Albania was not yet the popular destination it is today, it was a white spot on the map, Europe’s last secret, often compared to North Korea and infamous for the event in the 90s. For many, it sounded as if a destination as exotic as Bhutan or Patagonia had just popped up in the European backyard. Today Albania has arrived on top of hikers and cyclists bucket lists. They arrive enticed by the mild climate, amazing landscapes, great kitchen, quirks, and peculiarities like our bunkers and of course Albanian hospitality. They, in fact, rush here before it’s too late, to experience first hand the authenticity and feeling of traveling to a place where time seems to move at a different pace just before globalization takes over, beaches are all built up and rivers dammed. They leave with the experiences of the warmth of people, an interest in the complex history of the Balkans and the country’s position on cultural fold lines, curious what those will bring for the future and concerned how long it will take until Albania becomes just another Greece, Italy or Spain. For some it’s their first trip, others have been with us already four times.
How does it feel to change the workplace from the great outdoors to a home office?
Our love for the outdoors got us started, but managing a quickly growing company does not allow us to spend as much time there as we used to. While I’m indeed missing the weekend trips and am looking with melancholy at the ending winter season, the more flexible working hours allow me to make use of Tirana’s great biking and hiking trails. Out in nature social distancing is way easier than in front of the grocery store (on Saturdays especially) and the paths close enough to get to during the curfew free hours. Say hello if you meet me on the trail. 🙂
What are you missing the most from your work?
My awesome colleagues! While our company is fully digital/online and I’m used to working remotely from anywhere between Theth and Himare, interacting only through video and phone calls creates a gap and it will take time to form the culture to work for a fully remote team.
First Albania was hit by the November earthquake and now from the pandemic. To what extent and how each of these two major events affected your activity?
The two earthquakes had little to no effect on our business, we celebrated our best year to date and were observing a further increase in bookings for 2020. This all came to an abrupt end with the introduction of travel restrictions and discontinued flights. While we are very glad to have managed the safe return of all guests of our winter season, the outlook for the future does not look bright. In one week we mark the 7th anniversary of Zbulo’s inception as a project to showcase the little known gems of Albania, years in which we have experienced many wonderful highs and a good number of difficult lows – but never a greater challenge than that of today. All trips until April 30th are canceled and May is likely to follow within days. In the last three weeks, we took strong measures and prepared ourselves for a worst-case scenario in which we lose >90% of our business and only see recovery in Q2 2021. Our contingency plan cuts optional expenses, lowers fixed cost in all areas but the staff (we’re actually hiring) and most importantly creates alternative income sources such as project work, which is where Zbulo actually started and still excels.
How’s the trend among your clients? Are they just postponing their travel plans to Albania or do they tend to cancel their booked tours?
It’s been mainly clients traveling in April and May who had to cancel or postpone their trips, a decision that I fully understand and support. Almost unanimously they vowed to return in the near future and we are overwriting our terms and conditions so that payments can be transferred to future tours in 2020 and the following year. In fact, many of our invaluable guests surprised us with supportive words and expressions of disappointment about being unable to travel. The vast majority of those traveling in June or later remain committed and there’s a strong wish to travel as soon as flights, travel advisory, and government measures allow for that again.
In your opinion, which part of the travel and tourism industry in Albania is the most vulnerable to the coronavirus impact?
In the short term, I’m most worried about Albania’s tour guides, they are freelancers with no alternative income streams, nor the reserves or assets a full-grown business could command. Next in line for the sector of responsible travel will be smaller family-run businesses who don’t have other income streams and fewer local clients as say restaurants, I’m thinking of minibus drivers and small to medium hotels here. A larger business likely has foresight, resources, and management to handle a crisis longer and absorb losses better.
The conventional/mass tourism sector got a time buffer until later in the summer, at the same time it is also the most vulnerable to suffer from traveler’s sentiment and will see high cancellation rates. Guests have little commitment and interest as relations with the provider are impersonal, prices low and the experiences generic.
Those small and medium-sized businesses agile enough to make changes and position themselves well for the moment demand returns, will be the winners of this crisis and exit it strengthened by improvement and innovation.
With the tax incentives that are in place, how long do you think that the Albanian hospitality and the tourism sector can hold on in lockdown?
I haven’t seen reliable numbers to answer this question, but colleagues are greatly concerned or yet to realize that none of this will go away in the next few weeks. While the Albanian economy at large is negatively affected, hospitality and tourism are reliant on foreign travelers and unable to mitigate the impact. Tax incentives only apply on income, with a lockdown in place there’s none to be earned, at least not in the next two months. Those months will put a heavy burden on businesses that are often exiting the off-season cash-strapped or worse, with loans on costly investments to be paid or with many physical assets. The effects will multiply the longer the situation lasts and require the government to make a difficult decision between saving lives or sacrificing the economy and well being of the nation.
In these times of uncertainty, what could be some low-cost financing options from the government for tourism that could mitigate the crisis in the short-term?
This is a topic of great debate in the local travel industry that anxiously awaits a government announcement next week. Bailouts and stimulus packages in other countries have kindled increasing demands for an equal solution in Albania. Personally, I remain strongly in doubt whether our different economic position allows for that. One also needs to beware that the industry is extremely diverse and fragmented, finding a solution that covers everyone is a great challenge at a time when economic downturn and heightened expenses will prohibit the government from foregoing much-needed income. A simple and universal way that can satisfy both parties may be the facilitation of “unconditional”, government-backed credit for the tourism sector, where the only requirement is not to lay off staff. Such a measure requires little oversight and would preserve jobs while encouraging prudent spending. Continued liquidity guarantees that obligations to the government are paid while everyone can weather the drought until recovery allows for a gradual reduction of debt in the following years.
Do you think the pandemic will affect travelers’ attitudes towards more responsible and sustainable tourism models?
To date, the least responsible and least sustainable segments of travel, namely cruises and airlines, are the ones most affected by the situation. Travelers from around the world start considering whether a large hotel complex or big group bus trip are their best choices this year and gravitate to alternative options. At large mass-tourism models are being questioned (remember Thomas Cook and co?) and suffer higher cancellation rates than an individual, small group and adventure travel. This is a great opportunity and part of a wider trend where adventure travel, which is both inherently sustainable and responsible, has become the fastest-growing segment in tourism. From what we have seen, guests hardly ever turn back once they have experienced the benefits of a unique and sometimes life-changing opposed to packaged experience. They return energized and healthier, with increased mindfulness and full of gratitude as more meaningful trips include the space and opportunity for personal growth, to learn new things, challenge your belief systems and comfort zones, providing a feeling of accomplishment and often great stories to share with new and old friends.
What are the main lessons that decision-makers in the travel and tourism sector, citizens, and local communities can learn from the COVID-19?
It starts sounding a little worn but indeed every challenge, COVID-19 or otherwise, is also an opportunity in disguise. It makes us reconsider the status quo and look for solutions to new and old problems, turning into a driver for improvement and innovation. Our industry’s lack of digitalization and automation jumps to mind first. In times of tighter finances and curfews, both will put pressure on those unwilling or unable to evolve. Not having to remodel long grown structures and being agile is our benefit as newcomers to the global tourism market and we need to start harnessing the powers of our quickly growing domestic ICT sector.
The value of preparedness and management become clearly visible to everyone now and so does the price those who underestimate risks have to pay. While Albania has come to thrive from tourism, it still doesn’t fully comprehend what drives people to visit and how we’re destroying these values through a lack of vision, agenda, and oversight. This is a greater problem that the tourism sector at large, government as well as communities share and can only solve together. The establishment of standards, training of a qualified workforce, planning and regulation of development as well as the preservation of cultural and natural values, which we see diminishing around the country, need to be high on the agenda and pursuit with equal dedication as today’s health crisis.
What are some tourism sustainability innovation trends that could be implemented in Albania in the future?
Several trends have already arrived in the region, Croatia was ranked top of responsible destinations in 2019, and for which Albania is also well positioned: Globally we observe skyrocketing interest in flying less (less long haul for European travelers for which Albania is within easy reach), traveling longer (on a trip to the Balkans you can easily combine multiple countries) and a shift away from luxury (which Albania has not been suitable for due to subpar standards and services) to ecological and authentic experiences, the kind of raw experiences that get travelers to return to Albania already.
We can attract these travelers by serving their demand for the off-season (Albania is blessed with a long season) and slow travel that highlights local and authentic experiences. Protecting Albania’s gifted green belt of preserved nature and its unused potential is very important with bio-positive, rewilding and wildlife tourism on the rise. Our relationship to plastic has to change and more emphasis needs to be put on the reduction and handling of waste, the usage of natural resources like water and forest as well protection of landscapes to appeal to the eco-friendly as even the mainstream has started to be repulsed by what they find here. Starting to focus on local and organic products, opposed to imported and processed goods, is an easy step for every business but I still find single-use butter, industrial jam, Greek yogurt and Austrian fruit juice at breakfast buffets.
If you were a tourism policymaker, what would be your first decision?
To focus on becoming the leading eco-friendly destination in the Balkans by following in the footsteps of countries like Bhutan and Namibia. I’m convinced such a long-term vision can provide sustainability, increase visitor numbers and their spending, thus creating the foundation for a prosperous future in a country where already more than a quarter of the GDP is indirectly created by tourism.
What’s your top favorite tour in Albania?
This is the most difficult of questions in this interview and I hope you allow for more than one answer.
Working on the High Scardus Trail I was amazed by the hospitality and beauty of Diber. The region along the Eastern border with Northern Macedonia deserves a lot more attention and is a real alternative to the Northern Albanian Alps. Day hikers will be enchanted by the villages, friendly homestays, and their amazing produce. Trekkers enjoy an eldorado of point to point walks all to themselves and away from the crowds of Theth and Valbona. The Arbër Highway will make Peshkopi a lot faster to reach and easier to combine with the Albanian Alps and Ohrid. This is a newcomer we will hear a lot more about in the future!
The Mysterious South and Southern Highlands offer what I love most: To combine nature with culture, the mountains, and sea. From the Albanian Riviera’s turquoise waters and quiet beaches, shepherd paths lead through tranquil olive groves and across dramatic coastal mountains to Gjirokaster’s UNESCO nominated old town. Where Kadare and Hoxha have once walked, polyphonic singing still fills the cobbled alleys between stately mansions, but behold, one of Southern Albania’s greatest secrets still awaits. A stone’s throw from the Greek border, forgotten caravan routes lead across Ottoman stone bridges far into Zagoria’s scenic stone villages and gems of Byzantine church heritage. The efforts of this journey on foot through the highlands are quickly forgotten once you reach Permet, start indulging in the city’s delicacies and soak in healing thermal waters – what remains are only rich memories.
What’s the first place that you’re going to visit when things come back to normality?
This depends on when that happens! No matter whether in spring or autumn, in the interest of the outdoor scene and everyone who wants to become an adventurer, I hope that the next edition of the South Outdoor Festival will take place. The 4-day festival in Borsh includes everything from climbing to sailing and will be a balm for our souls and hearts after this crisis is over.
Do you have a message of hope for other people working in the tourism industry?
I receive them daily from former and future guests who express their solidarity and intend to travel once the most stringent measures are over. The virus may postpone but cannot cancel our dreams and desire for travel and while it’s impossible to know for how long this crisis will last, we have to be determined to see it through. For once life returns to normal, we need to be here to welcome them with the warmth and hospitality Albania is known for the world over.
Read also: Hiking and walking holidays in Albania
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Photoss by Zbulo