Rural tourism drives economic development in the ‘Accursed Mountains’

The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is promoting soft tourism in Albania

Among Europe’s host of tourist destinations, Albania is still a secret escape. Not content to remain a hot tip for insiders only, this Balkan country is now seeking access to the international travel markets and is working hard to promote its wealth of attractions to adventure-hungry travellers with a taste for an exciting new destination. And it has much to offer: rich and diverse nature with abundant flora and fauna, remote mountains and attractive beaches, impressive cultural landscapes, ancient fortresses, picturesque villages and World Heritage sites. Albania hopes that developing its soft tourism sector off the beaten track will stimulate the economy and offer rural communities new prospects for the future.

Albania has come a long way: once Europe’s poorest country, it is now a candidate for accession to the European Union. On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), GIZ is supporting Albania as it tackles the challenges of EU integration. In this still predominantly agricultural country, rural development is Germany’s main focus of attention. The aim is to reconcile the interests of nature conservationists, farmers and the nascent tourism industry.

Around half the Albanian population lives in the countryside – and in marginalised rural regions, with their weak infrastructure, tourism is a beacon of economic hope. ‘Albania has so much to offer in terms of its natural and cultural heritage. There is massive potential for sustainable tourism, with great benefits for local people,’ says GIZ Country Director Hans-Jürgen Cassens. ‘We are working with local businesses to develop the infrastructure and promote Albania as a destination internationally. Giving people real and viable economic prospects is the only way to encourage them to stay; otherwise, unemployment, low incomes and a lack of infrastructure will drive them away.’

As part of a project supported by GIZ in partnership with the German Alpine Club in the ‘Accursed Mountains’ – the wildly romantic and mysterious Albanian Alps in the north of the country – tourist accommodation is now available in private homes, several hundred kilometres of hiking trail have been upgraded and waymarked, mountain guides have been trained, and maps have been put up to help hikers get their bearings. The influx of more than 30,000 visitors every year is generating around two million euros for the region, and this seems set to increase. In the village of Tethi alone – a popular base for hikers setting out on the mountain trails – there were around 14,000 overnight stays in 2015, generating around 260,000 euros from accommodation alone, compared with just 20,000 euros when the tourism development initiative began back in 2007. GIZ has directly supported the upgrading of 40 guesthouses in the region. In all, around 2,000 families have benefited from the boost for the tourism sector, with GIZ’s support. The positive development of sustainable mountain tourism protects the natural environment as well: 40,000 hectares of countryside in the north of the country have now been designated as a nature park. And by linking the hiking routes to others in Montenegro and Kosovo and to the international Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a cross-border destination has been created.

Other rural regions in the east and southeast of the country are now benefiting from this experience. With advice from GIZ, new tourism offers are being created – and this doesn’t just mean hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. The region not only attracts mountain bikers and paragliders: with its rich cultural landscape with its antiquities and medieval and Ottoman heritage, it also has much to offer lovers of art and culture. The southeast Mediterranean region, with its largely unspoilt beaches, is gradually being developed for sustainable tourism as well, offering significant income-generating and business opportunities for local communities in its little towns and villages.

The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is a federal enterprise with worldwide operations. It supports the German Government in the fields of international cooperation for sustainable development and international education. Through its work, it assists people and societies in shaping their own futures and improving living conditions.