Albanian luxury tourism project delayed by property dispute

KAKOME BAY, Albania – On a midsummer night 20 years ago, a tall Frenchman beached his small sailing boat near Kakome Bay on the forbidding coast of communist Albania, then the world’s most isolated country. The two young border guards patrolling the shore readied their Kalashnikovs. They stayed calm even when the figure drew what looked like a light rifle, their friends told Reuters. But when he spoke to them in a language they did not understand, they panicked and shot him dead. He later turned out to be a manager for the trend-setting French resort chain Club Mediterranee. Almost 20 years later, a Club Mediterranee executive was flying along Albania’s Ionian coast in a helicopter, looking for the perfect spot for the next Club Med village. Strangely, his eye fell on the empty strand below and he pointed down at Kakome Bay. Wild beauty Olive and oak trees grow in the valley lined by dense forest on the right of the bay. A medieval monastery built on the stony hillside to the left overlooks the bay where an old concrete pier juts into the sea. With French-owned Club Med as tour operator, Albanian partner firm Riviera plans to build 350 elite villas here with 700 beds for 12,000 tourists. «Kakome Village will be one of the most beautiful in the world. And what’s most important, it will put Albania on the map,» Riviera’s chief Dritan Celaj told Reuters. Closed to the world for nearly 40 years after World War II by the late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania was spared the dawn of mass tourism. Hoxha prepared against an invasion that never came by building pill-boxes and heavy gun bunkers on Albania’s coasts, but the country still has long stretches of pristine shore, swept by the Adriatic breeze. Tourism makes up just 8.5 percent of Albania’s GDP, far less than in neighboring Greece or in Montenegro and Croatia, where jet-age tourism flourished in the Yugoslavia of the 1970s. A high-profile venture such as Club Med’s could realize the dream of turning the virgin beaches of the rural south into a major money-spinner as well as help Albania dispel its post-communist reputation as a country prone to outbursts of anarchy. «This is a great step because it is the first chance to develop tourism with tour operators capable of turning Albania into a destination of choice for foreign tourists,» Celaj added. The lights of Corfu On a clear night gazing out from Kakome, the twinkling lights of the Greek holiday island of Corfu are clearly visible, shining like a beacon of lucrative tourism. It was from Corfu, site of one of Club Med’s first villages, that Jean-Marie Masselin, 29, set off on his fatal scuba-diving trip and strayed too near a coast that, in those days, was as unwelcoming as today’s North Korean shores. The «light rifle» in his hand was perhaps only a spear gun, but he took a bullet in the head and was washed out to sea. Albania said a boat had violated territorial waters but denied any knowledge of a dead Frenchman. Ten years later, as if drawn back, Club Med came with proposals for a resort but a bout of anarchy that shook the young democracy to its roots in 1997 put the plans on ice. A second chance has come with Kakome Bay, but although it has the full backing of Prime Minister Fatos Nano, the project faces stiff opposition from local villagers. They say they and not the state own the location. As proof, they offer documents going back to 1876 and bearing the seals of the Ottoman Empire, King Vittorio Emmanuele III of Italy and Albania, and King Zog I of Albania. Last year, the Orthodox Christian villagers gathered on the beach on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and swore to protect their land rights, vowing «to skin the vultures» who dared steal it. «We are not against Club Med. We want the tourist village to be built. But whoever builds here will have to talk to us as its rightful owners,» village leader Vladimir Kumi told Reuters. In an ensuing battle of documents in the Albanian Parliament, Nano knocked down the claim with equally significant papers from the King Zog administration. Celaj’s plan to start work in November did not materialize. But Club Med confirmed to Reuters they were still behind their Albania project and local reports cited top management as telling Nano this month that work will start soon. While waiting for its big break as the next best-kept secret for the discerning traveler, Albania has had some practice with the less-demanding custom of its ethnic kin from neighboring Kosovo, the Serbian territory run by the United Nations. Deputy Tourism Minister Artan Lame said the money they spend helps improve conditions while the government cleans up the water supply and the popular northern beaches. Albania has also gained experience in visitor security. Kosovo Albanians come in guarded convoys for fear of bandits in the wild hills of the northern border zone. Bandits are unlikely to pose a problem at Kakome Bay, where Club Med’s village will nestle safely on the seashore well away from the nearest highway. Holidaymakers will fly into Corfu and cross the sea to reach the resort by boat, just like Masselin did. This time, on the other side will be cocktails, not Kalashnikovs.