Albania cautiously courts tourism Beaches: Foreign interests eye vacation sites along Albania's seacoast, but collapsing infrastructure and armed rebellion in the south complicate a situation made delicate by ancient ruins and ecological concerns.

Sun Journal

March 12, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BUTRINT, Albania -- Ani Tare stands beside the Venetian castle overlooking the remains of a Greek and Roman town. Birds swoop over wetlands. A shepherd guides his flock of sheep across a rutted mountain that meets a cloudless sky.

"Everyone wants a piece of this place," says Tare, a guide and proponent of environmentally friendly tourism. "They want to turn this into a tourist town."

Tourism? In Albania?

Albania is on the verge of civil war, with more than a third of the country controlled by anti-government forces. Their rebellion began as a protest over investment schemes in which nearly every Albanian family lost money.

And regardless of what reforms the government makes, the infrastructure will still be rudimentary. The roads are awful, the trains a joke, the main airport a dump.

But the country has something every other European country covets: unspoiled, warm-weather beaches.

Developers look at Albania and see potential that went untapped for nearly 50 years, as a repressive Communist regime sealed the borders and concentrated on building hundreds of thousands of bunkers to help repel an invasion that never came.

When the Communists were toppled in 1991, a trickle of tourists arrived. Until the rebellion, some 70,000 a year took in the pleasures of the country. Some of the bunkers were put to use as beach cabanas.

But building a tourism industry is strictly a long-term project, especially now that the country is in chaos.

Jewel of the Ionian

There are nearly 80 miles of beaches along coast of the Ionian Sea, and Butrint is the jewel.

Greeks and Romans settled here; Goths, Slavs and Normans invaded. Under the Turks, the settlement declined into a modest fishing village.

But in this century, French and Italian archaeologists dug in the hills and uncovered Roman ruins -- a stupendous theater, baths, a basilica and bapistry, and a palace complex.

The glory of Butrint is that it remains unspoiled by modern buildings. There is little more than the austere beauty of the ruins.

But radical changes were considered in the recent past. When Soviet leader Nikita S. Khru-shchev visited, he had a different idea for Butrint. He proposed making it a submarine base.

"Why do you employ all these forces and funds on such dead things?" Khrushchev is said to have told Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. "Leave the Hellenes and the Romans to their antiquity."

Khrushchev, Hoxha wrote later, "was truly an ignoramus in these fields.

"He could see only the profitability."

Now, the tour operators are circling Butrint, lured by sun, sea and ruins. But a small band of local entrepreneurs, backed by the London-based Butrint Foundation, is trying to hold off the developers and preserve the area as a national park.

As he looks across an expanse of silver and green, Tare points to some of the developers' sites.

"You see those three islands?" he says, pointing to rocky outcrops. "There's a Kuwaiti group that wants to build a hotel and marina connected with bridges."

"You see over there?" pointing to two fingers of land that jut into the sea. "Italians want to put up a hotel in one place. Germans are looking to build another."

A Maltese firm, A. X. Holdings, wants to build a hotel and marina on the coast. The company also proposes to build Albania's first golf course -- in the wetlands. Developers are also eyeing Butrint's lake, where fishermen harvest mussels.

"We're hoping nothing will happen," Tare says. "Usually, the idealistic people lose and the people with money win. Maybe this time, the idealistic people will win."

But even as groups try to hold off tourism in Butrint, the government has other ideas. It has promised some land near the archaeological site to individuals, apparently in return for their support in parliamentary elections last May.

Changes already appear

Boxy, one-room concrete homes have sprouted on the hills. Olive trees have been cleared. A gas station is rising above a gorgeous cove.

"Listen to the sound of the bells around the sheep," Tare says. "We have a saying around here, that a shepherd is like a conductor.

"Imagine hearing power boats in the future. Imagine Butrint surrounded by a golf course."

Their recent history has left them relatively unprepared.

"You have to understand, tourism was forbidden here," says Adnan Rama, the Tourism Ministry's director of international relations. "The only people who could come here were carefully selected.

"I remember as a child going to the sea, and meeting people from other countries. We asked them what they thought of Albania. They said they liked it. That disappointed us."

"We are not looking for mass tourism," he says. "We want tourism of a medium-high to an elite level. We need an infrastructure."

It is being built brick by brick.

In Tirana, the capital, the Austrian-based Rogner group built the $22 million Europark Hotel, complete with cable television and state-of-the-art phone system. Its lobby has become the setting for something akin to a Graham Greene novel -- jammed with spies, diplomats, military brass, businessmen and journalists.

Rogner now plans to transform a once top-secret submarine base into a beach resort, at Porto Palermo in the south.

The base now is a ruin, littered with old trucks and guarded by soldiers who have to hitch rides to the next town to get water.

For a spare cigarette, a visitor can cruise through the base.

"You have to develop nature carefully," says Reinhard Schmidt, general manager of the Europark. "You don't want to repeat the mistakes of Turkey, Spain and Italy. You don't want spoiled water in the sea.

"You have to use nature, though. You can't just leave it alone."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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