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Saturday, October 16, 2010

The rugged Albanian north opens its doors to sustainable tourism

by Cynthia Ord

International tourists are noticing Albania, attracted to its unspoiled Mediterranean coastline and the quality-for-price value that it offers.  Tourism-oriented growth and development, often rampant and unchecked, is most visible in the capital city of Tirana and along the coast.  Roads are widening into protected areas and high-rise hotels obstruct previously natural landscapes. Such unregulated growth threatens the same natural and cultural endowments upon which the tourism industry depends.  

Development organizations such as the UNDP and USAID recognize the need to implement a more sustainable tourism strategy that conserve Albania’s natural environment and cultural heritage while increasing quality of life for local people.  Tour operators such as Outdoor Albania brand themselves by their commitment to these principles. In some of the more isolated regions of the country, such as the alpine north, communities and small businesses are working together to harness tourism as a means of much-needed sustainable development for the area.  

Traditional beekeeping in the northern Albanian Alps

Outdoor Albania offers culture and adventure trips to bridge the gap carefully between tourism development and this geographically remote mountainous area.  Its destinations are tiny rural villages such as Vermosh, Valbona, and Theth. Its goal is to develop trips and itineraries that will bring economic benefits to local people and keep Albania’s environment pristine for future recreation and enjoyment.  

Both fixed and tailor-made tours to the Albanian Alps are available. One of the most popular tours is the 5-day mountain trek and village guesthouse tour.  The highlights of the itinerary include transport to the valley of Valbona via local ferry on lake Koman through the Drin canyon, and guided trekking along a mountain pass between the valley of Valbona to the village of Theth accompanied by luggage-bearing mountain horses.  

local transportation: ferry through the Drin canyon

The cultural aspect of the tours is accommodation with local families who offer their homes as guesthouses to travelers.  Hospitality has been a pillar of northern Albanian culture for centuries, as the oral tradition of the area mandates the welcoming of strangers into one’s home.  By lodging with local families, tourists get a taste of authentic local dishes that the families prepare. They also get a glimpse of the mountain life and agricultural livelihoods that Albanian northerners have been practicing for generations.  The tall stone and wood-shingle architecture of the village guesthouses is traditional, characteristic of the northern region, and highly photogenic. 

The Terthorja Guesthouse in Theth, Albania

As the northern Alpine region emerges in the guidebooks and on the maps for culture- and adventure-seeking tourists, demand for infrastructure and services such as transportation is increasing in the area.  Outdoor Albania recognises the need to meet this demand in a way that will benefit the local people of the area and preserve the environment for future generations.  Rather than encouraging hasty construction in the area, OA utilizes the local guesthouse accommodations that are already available and eager for tourists.  OA also utilizes local transportation and trekking that respect the natural environment rather than threaten it.  In these rural northern villages, the doors are open to the Outdoor Albania brand of tourism. 

Your local hosts at the Terthorja Guesthouse

35 comments:

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