Greek tourists discovering Albania’s unknown beauty

THESSALONIKI – The thought of Greek tourists in Albania may sound odd but has developed into a reality. Greek nationals have begun opting for Albania as a tourism destination, and, moreover, are returning feeling delighted. A Thessaloniki travel agency’s initiative to start organizing four- and five-day trips to the neighboring country last autumn was successful enough to draw rival firms into this new market. Eleni Semelidou, a resident of Mesimeri, east of Thessaloniki, was among the first Greeks to visit Albania on an organized tour. «I expected to see a country in dark shambles but, on the contrary, found lots of nature, rivers, lakes and beaches that have nothing to envy in Greek beaches, impressive building development and very friendly people. They have good bread and dairy products, which are still pure,» said Semelidou. «I was truly surprised by shops that were stocked with imported Greek and Italian products. I was impressed by the women, who were well-kept, well-dressed and so up-to-date with latest fashion trends, and that they did not look any different to us. And there were so many supermarkets full of Greek products. There’s nothing they lack. My impressions are as good as they could be.» Despite being a neighbor, Albania remains a largely unknown quantity for Greeks. This is also true for Europeans in general, who have associated the developing country with emigration, poverty, crime and, in older times, the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. However, as is the case elsewhere in the world, there’s both a dark and a luminous side to this country. Going beyond the prejudices created by Albania’s troubled past, visitors today can expect to find mountainous beauty, gorgeous beaches, significant remnants of ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine civilization, and a contemporary society that is battling, despite the difficulties, to converge with the modern world. Hailing from from the town of Ptolemaida in northern Greece, Evgenia Chondromatidou first visited Albania in the mid-80s, when the country was still impoverished and isolated. «Twenty years on, Albania is unrecognizable. I did not expect such development. I was impressed by the people. Nowadays, they walk the streets with their heads held high. They no longer carry around a sense of melancholy and are well-dressed and pleasant. They’re hardworking, generous, and well-mannered. It looks like the first bad impression in the early 90s ruined this wonderful, yet misunderstood, land’s reputation,» said Chondromatidou. «And one more thing – I’ve traveled half the planet and can say that I’ve had the best coffee I’ve ever had in Tirana,» she continued. Both Chondromatidou and Semelidou said curiosity drew them to the idea of visiting Albania. «When I first spoke to my friends, they thought I was crazy. But when I got back, they couldn’t get enough of what I was saying,» said Semelidou. Chondromatidou, describing her approach to the unorthodox trip, said she was attracted «by a curiosity felt for a land that was so distant yet so near; one that was never in the spotlight; a country that almost came from nowhere.» Stefanos Hadzimanolis, the head of the Thessaloniki travel agency that began offering Greeks excursions to Albania, said the initiative grew out of the idea to provide Albanian immigrants with ways to travel back to their homeland. «I realized that there was an increase in demand for transport toward Albania because of the Albanian immigrants. At first, I was thinking of organizing flights for them,» Hadzimanolis explained. «But when I got there, I discovered a land of incredible natural beauty, one that is rich in monuments, full of kind people and facilities capable of catering to small 30-member tourist groups.» His travel agency has organized four trips to Albania so far. Their itineraries have included visits to Tirana, Korce, Saranda, Himara and Kruja. More will follow, he asserted, because of their success. Describing the typical profile of Greeks who choose to visit Albania, Hadzimanolis highlighted «advanced education and extensive travel experience.»

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