An alien idea takes hold

BUTRINT, Albania – A friend of Roman orator Cicero pleaded with him to lobby Julius Caesar not to build a colony near his estate in Butrint because he feared he would lose land. Titus Pomponius Atticus described the area as «the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.» The story, recounted in Butrint’s museum, does not say if Cicero approached Caesar, but the latter built a colony here in 44 BC. Two millennia later, Lord Rothschild and his team of British archaeologists had better luck in convincing Albanian leaders to refrain from building and instead manage the 29 square kilometers (11.2 square miles) around Butrint’s ancient ruins as a national park. «It took a lot of faith to support the park because it was an alien idea. They had to see it develop in the light of the real world,» Oliver Gilkes, the team’s field director, said. But it paid off. The ruins of the Hellenistic, Roman, Medieval and Venetian worlds are now at the heart of the «sun, sand and culture» tourism that new Tourism Minister Bujar Leskaj wants to offer. Considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the Balkans, Butrint’s ruins are set on a small green peninsula between Lake Butrint and the straits of Corfu, a natural fortress almost completely surrounded by water. A small hotel, the only one in the park’s territory, caters to some 400-500 tourists a day from May to October. «They like the virgin nature, the fresh fish and mussels,» said Hektor Balili, one of the owners. «Butrint is like the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. But they do complain a lot about the (narrow) road from Sarande (port),» he added. Such logistical headaches as poor roads, power cuts and lack of accommodation are holding back Butrint, and tourism in Albania. Most visitors to the ruins are daytrippers ferried from Greece’s Corfu island across the bay. They come, have a look and leave. That was Albania. But Albania has around 360 kilometers (225 miles) of mostly virgin coastline. Leskaj says his country needs an image makeover to give it a reputation as a safe place, not bandit territory. Building boom One of Europe’s poorest countries, Albania accounts for just 0.1 percent of tourism in Europe. «We have the Kosovo and Macedonia (Albanians) market. Now we are after the European and US market, the adventure tourists and the relatively rich,» Leskaj said. Cruise ships will stop regularly for the first time at Albanian ports this summer for brief visits. Albania still lacks the infrastructure for mass tourism, but it is building wherever it can, with scant regard for water supply or sewage. Along the winding roads from Sarande to Butrint, visitors can see bulldozers carving square sites out of rocky hillsides. In one Sarande spot, the smell of sewage wafts into a bar along with the sea breeze. «The blame falls squarely on the state for not keeping ahead of individuals’ desire to build,» said Sarande writer Agim Mato. But luckily, he said, the tourism wave was still a while off. «Albania’s tourism is for the daring,» he added. Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet Publications, agreed that wildcat building was far too evident during his May trip. «We visited Jal Beach just north of Himara… beautiful little bay, wonderful beach, being rapidly spoilt by some horrible construction without any architectural merit or relationship to the setting,» Wheeler wrote to Reuters. Leskaj said the government was offering fiscal incentives to foreign companies and advising them either to lease or buy land in order to increase accommodation. He is also looking inland. «The one who will invest in Alpine (skiing) tourism… will reap most benefits,» he said. Albania has lots of snow but no lifts, and locals go abroad to ski. Leskaj said he was conscious that Albania’s «image abroad is negative to zero,» but said he planned to enlist famous Albanians to make the case for their country. The most notorious Albanian might better serve the purpose. Wheeler noted that late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha built more than half a million concrete pillbox bunkers to keep invaders at bay, sprinkling them along the empty beaches. That was when Albania was as isolated as North Korea is today. The bigger bunkers have now been turned into restaurants. «I was amused by the bunkers and I think they’re one of the quirky, curious things about Albania which it could easily capitalize on,» said Wheeler. «Albania needs to develop an image which is different from anywhere else,» he added. Arjuna Schryvers and Eefje Ten Haken, an IT specialist and a social worker from Maastricht in Holland, were touring Albania with their mountain bikes in April near Porto Palermo Bay. They said wanted to see for themselves a country «you do not hear much about and people say it’s dusty and chaotic.» «You don’t see many tourists. This is pure and not influenced by the West, although they’re getting there,» Schryvers told Reuters. «It’s very interesting to see luxury cars go through flocks of sheep.» «The nature is incredibly beautiful, people are friendly and invited us to drink,» he added. «We had a beach completely to ourselves one day. We wondered why there was no one else around.»

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