Revealing Albania's untapped natural attractions, Kotherja highlights what makes the country a unique destination to discover and discusses how the entire Balkan region's travel industries can work together to promote tourism.
TTG: What are your latest tourism news and developments in both Albania and at Elite Travel DMC Travel DMC?
Although the tourist industry in Albania dates back to communist times and before, it is really only over the last five to 10 years that it has seen the major growth that has made it the country's number one industry and foreign currency earner, with an estimated contribution of 23.3 per cent to the country's GDP last year, and a trebling in the total visitor numbers from all major markets over the same five to 10 year period.
In the first place, this growth reflects an increasing awareness by foreign tour operators and individual visitors of the long untapped natural attractions of a country which is at a crossroads between the more developed and better known tourist destinations of the region, such as Greece, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Albania has also seen major infrastructure investments over the same period, including the construction of a new international airport in Tirana handling over a million and a half visitors a year, a major road building programme considerably reducing journey times within the country and between Albania and its neighbours, and the installation of modern mobile telecommunications networks.
But not only in my opinion but also that of many of my colleagues, perhaps the most important recent development for tourism in Albania is the decision by the recently elected Albanian government, which takes office this September, to establish for the first time a Ministry of Urbanization & Tourism almost exclusively dedicated to tourism rather than handling other issues such as Sport, Youth or Culture.
As regards Elite Travel DMC and recent developments at our company, we have successfully consolidated our position in the international market as a reliable local partner, not only providing services in Albania but also as a regional partner offering services across almost all the Balkan region.
The development I would like to highlight in particular is the work we have been doing on a project to develop a new business management software for use by the travel trade, funded 50 per cent by Elite Travel DMC and 50 per cent by the business development NGO Rritja Albania 'USAID Albania'. The project is being developed for us by a local company 'InfoSoft Software Development', and will be launched very soon under the title 'ISD Round Tour Management'. The software will be used not only by Elite Travel DMC but will also be available to all tour operators in the Albanian market, and will be sold later internationally. This pioneering software will give a chance to all Albanian tour operators to improve their services and become more effective internationally.
TTG: What makes Albania a unique and attractive travel destination?
Albania's location at the heart of a region of major interest for leisure, cultural and adventure tourism has many advantages. But what makes us particularly attractive as a tourist destination is the fact that we combine so many of these attractions - sun and sea leisure tourism, mountain and adventure tourism, and historic and cultural tourism – all in one small and increasingly well connected space, making it possible to combine a variety of activities in one relatively short stay.
But what makes our country unique compared with our neighbours in the region, is our newness on the tourism scene, making a visit to Albania that little bit more special and memorable. I believe it is this newness of the Albanian holiday experience and the sincerity and natural hospitality of our people that has caused our visitor numbers to rise so quickly in just a few years. This rise has not been confined to visitors from more distant countries but also includes visitors from our own region, who have been keen to experience something that was for so long so near and yet so inaccessible for them.
The challenge for Albanian tourism both now and in the future is to preserve this natural gift for sincere hospitality against the pressures of commercialism , so that our guests can rediscover the sincere smile that greeted them some years ago in Greece or Spain, and experience the same smile and welcome each time they come back. I believe it is very much in the Albanian nature to offer sincere hospitality and a warm welcome to any foreigner, and this is something which makes us special.
TTG: Are you promoting any niche types of tourism?
Yes, alternative types of tourism as well as traditional leisure tourism are very much part of Albania's offer, with outdoor and adventure activities based on coastal and mountain destinations attracting increasing numbers of visitors. Rafting, pony trekking, walking, paragliding are amongst the many activities on offer and increasingly available as better road communications open up the inner secrets of Albania' s wild and diversified nature.
And of course there are the rich cultural and architectural resources of our country, which is home to no less than three UNESCO World Heritage sites – Butrint, Berat and Gjirokaster - as well as the many historic areas and sites to be found in and around most of our major cities – Durres, Shkodra, Vlora, Pogradec and of course Tirana.
An exciting new development over the last couple of years has been the appearance on the Albanian market of some well known international brands offering high quality guided tour packages taking in Albania's main archaeological sites and cultural centres, as well as the establishment of a network of 'Authentic Albania' hotels and restaurants offering traditional style accommodation and cuisine often in venues of historical significance.
TTG: Who are your main feeder markets and are you targeting any new markets?
Currently Albania's main markets, and those of Elite Travel DMC, are in Western and Eastern Europe, including surrounding area countries, and the new Asian markets. Tourism has more than doubled or trebled from most of these, with some markets such as Kosova, Greece, Germany Switzerland and Austria, as well as the US, performing particularly well. As far as Elite Travel DMC is concerned, our major activity has been with tour operators from Germany, France, UK, Nordic Countries, Italy, USA and the Asian market for whom we have provided both in country holidays and regional tours, with a particular focus on adventure and cultural tourism.
Whilst Albania must continue to focus on all available markets and types of tourism, I believe we should increasingly be exploiting the regional dimension of tourism opened up by the end of communism and the improved land and sea communications within and between the countries of the region. I see a huge and untapped potential for attracting tourists from the neighboring counties and bringing in those from further afield already holidaying in our neighborhood to sample short one and two day visits to Albania, with a view to their returning for longer visits in the future.
TTG: Are you appearing at any travel trade events and if so what message are you hoping to convey?
During the last years, we have been regularly represented at the most important travel shows such as ITB Berlin, WTM London, Bit Milano, as well as more regional travel events.
Yes, this year for the first time Elite Travel DMC Travel will be representing Albania as main stand holder at the 23-25 October 2013 ITB Asia "Trade Show for the Asian Travel Market" in Singapore. This show is one of the best and fastest growing 'b2b' platforms for the Asian travel market, which is why we decided to be there, and to use our presence to present to new and existing Asian clients some of the unique and quality products Albania and the Balkans have to offer in 2014.
As regards the message we hope to convey in Singapore , it is very much the one we hope to convey to all our markets - namely that Albania is a new and in many ways unique and exciting destination with a dynamic and professional tourist sector, the natural and geographic advantages of our more established neighbours, and with our unique dimension of natural warmth and hospitality. The fact is that as the 'new kid' on the tourism 'block' in the Balkans, we know we have to try just that little bit harder.
TTG: How do you anticipate the travel industry will develop in Albania over the next few months?
Hopefully over the next few months, the travel industry in Albania will begin to see the fruits of this new relationship between a dedicated Tourism Ministry and a fully representative National Tourism Association.
As regards Elite Travel DMC, our main aim over the coming months will be to become more involved the area of sun and sea leisure tourism to balance our already well developed expertise in the cultural and adventure tourism sectors, which we have successfully promoted up to now.
But more generally, as someone who has travelled extensively in the Balkans over the last 10 years, and has become acutely aware of the spirit of good will that exists between business partners throughout the Balkan region, I would like to see more emphasis placed on promoting the Balkans as a whole as one great tourist destination, offering common European standards of service, and a colourful mosaic of inter-related traditions, cultures, history and life experiences. Not only will Albania and each country of the region benefit individually from this sharing of experiences and visitors, but I sincerely believe that tourist operators and tourists can do as much as any politician to bring about better mutual understanding between those of us who live and work in the region. This at least is my hope and yet another reason why I believe our tourist industry is a worthwhile target for far greater government effort, vision, and investment.