Albania: forty years on
In May 1981, Guardian journalist Linda Christmas joined a Regent Holidays tour to Albania. Forty years later, in May 2022, Linda returned to Albania on another Regent Holidays tour to see how the country had changed.
The first hint came a week before I set out on my third visit to Albania in forty years. ‘The Financial Times’ published a brilliant article promoting a culinary tour of the country, interviewing eager chefs unearthing Albania’s gastronomic history. It was mouth-watering of course. But more to the point, it showed Albanian pride and it demonstrated that the country is leaning heavily on tourism to secure its future. Once a mere handful visited. Now it is said to be millions a year. Tourism now accounts for 25% of GDP. It was obvious on my second visit in 1991 that tourism was the goal. We were shown glimpses of beaches, but there were no roads leading to them, much less hotels. Now there are roads and beaches to entice those who need sea and sand to accompany their prawns, at prices so much lower than neighbouring Greece. But budget tourism is not what the country needs and there are plentiful grand hotels for those who need comfort.
Such changes are impressive. It is after all, a mere 30 years since the country emerged from its drab existence as a hard-line communist state. In l991, the changes scratched the surface. In Tirana there were cafés with umbrellas provided by Marlborough cigarettes and Evangelical Christians strutting their stuff. There was “Gone with the Wind” on the television. A visit to a new library revealed a librarian who had just returned from the US and was awaiting container loads of books. Wiping away a tear, she said: “God smiled on America; he did not smile on Albania.” I raised a quizzical eye-brow and resisted the temptation to quip that it was hardly surprising since Albania had been an atheist country with all religions forbidden!
From these early signs I feared that progress in Albania would mean slavishly copying the route of the Stars and Stripes. Fortunately, I was wrong. McDonald’s is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we drank exceptional local wine and beer and feasted on simple and seasonal food with Italian, Greek, but mainly Turkish influence. The Albanians love cheese, baked, fried, in pies - my favourite is filo pastry stuffed with cheese and spinach. They also love meat, grilled, mainly lamb with plates of grilled vegetables. At the coast there is fish and seafood, prawns, squid, calamari. Olive oil is so special that several in the group brought samples back with them!
But there is much more to admire in Albania than food. Tirana sees the biggest changes; it teems with life. There are traffic jams where once only official cars where allowed. There is colour where once there was none: even visitors were advised not to bring brightly-coloured clothes. The Mayor, Edi Rama, now Prime Minister, has had many buildings painted different colours. The vast central Skanderbeg Square which used to be eerily empty, was full of workmen erecting a big screen for an important football match. The ‘National Historical Museum’, opened in 1981, still has pride of place in the square and offers the opportunity to study the area’s story from prehistoric culture to Mother Teresa. A new mosque is being built and rumour has it that an 85-metre-high block of apartments, offices and shops is planned, designed in the shape of Skanderbeg’s head. Nearby is the ‘House of Leaves’. The building was a maternity hospital in the 1930s, but was used for much more sinister purposes during the communist regime. It is now dedicated to the people who were spied on, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and executed.
Outside the capital, change is less obvious. Gjirokastra, Kruja, Berat and Butrint, all visited on this 40th anniversary tour, are timeless and seem untouched. We had to reach Ksamil and Saranda to once again see Tirana-like changes. Here numerous hotels jostle for views of the sea, none high-rise, but unnecessarily hemmed in. It was here that we feasted on seafood and witnessed the resorts where tourists could relax, sated with the glories of ancient sites.
We did not travel further north than Kruja but beyond Kruja this mountainous area is still poor, jobs are few and young people have left or are wanting to leave. This summer ‘The Daily Mail’ featured the town of Has, where so many teenage boys have become boat migrants to the UK that its Mayor, Liman Morina said: “Our town is emptying. We are losing our children”. Mr Morina was quoted as saying that he regularly spots children on TV reports who only a few weeks before were living with their families in Has.
Once no-one was allowed to leave Albania. Now a detailed report from the World Bank earlier this year said that Albania’s diaspora is one of the highest in the world. This provides large remittance inflows, thought to add around 15% to GDP, but this contribution is vulnerable to economic shocks in hosting countries. The Bank’s report suggests Albania, in the queue to join the EU, faces many challenges and urgently needs to overhaul education at all levels and invest in skills training. But recent events have hampered progress: there was an earthquake in 2019, then Covid which reduced tourism by 60% and now the Russia-Ukraine war has added another dent: Albania was a popular destination for both countries.
Forty years ago, in 1981, I visited Albania for the first time. My memories are easily revived by re-reading the article I wrote for ‘The Guardian’. Back then my aim was to try to understand a unique proletarian dictatorship, isolated and proud. I recall the sign at the border: “Even if we have to go without bread, we Albanians do not violate principles; we do not betray Marxism-Leninism.” Teachers, and others who worked with their minds, received scant respect; they had to spend a month a year tiling the soil, and they earned less than those engaged in physically hard work. I recall the national symbol - ubiquitous, dome-shaped concrete and steel bunkers with gun-slits - designed to repel invaders. In 2022 we played “spot the bunker” on our travels. There are few: Albania has joined NATO and doesn’t need them. In just over a generation, a mere 40 years, there is little left of the proletarian dictatorship.