It could be argued that, when it comes to travel, there are few mysteries left in western Europe. A continent so trawled, trusted and trammeled by tourist footfall has long since given up its last hidden corners. Especially those corners which abut the seafront.
But if you take another glance at the map, one remaining pocket of the relatively unknown may just stare back at you. Albania is like a missing piece in an otherwise completed jigsaw – the final portion of the landmass along the Adriatic which has not become a beach-holiday stalwart.
Its absence on this score is glaring. Immediately to the south, Greece is as reliable a short-haul European sunspot as anyone could want. Directly above, Montenegro has made plenty of progress in the last decade, quietly establishing its 183 miles of shore as an ever-more chic option for a coastal getaway. A little further to the north, Croatia now seems to have been at the forefront of travelers’ thoughts for a long time, its 3,626 miles of waterline (if you include its numerous scattered islands) playing regular host to visitors from across the planet.
Albania, by contrast, is still almost unheard of as a package destination – despite the fact that its 265 miles of seaside are in a prime location. In a rare event, the country can claim to be lapped by not just one sea, but two – the Adriatic and the Ionian are deemed to meet in the sheltered Vlorë Bay (where Vlorë, the country’s third largest city sits). That, at this point, the distance between Albania and elbow of Puglia, away to the west in Italy, is just 60 miles, only emphasizes the splendor of this Balkan country’s location.
There should be a caveat here, of course. To say that Albania is almost unheard of as a package destination is to overlook the many Albanian tourists who are well aware of their home state’s suitability for a week on the sand. There are plenty of rooms, and plenty of paying customers, in the hotel zones of Durrës (the second city, in the north of the country) and Saranda (the key tourism hotspot, in the south, close to the Greek border). It is just that, as yet, there are very few Britons among them. The cat remains in the bag.
Why would this be? Well, there are several reasons, but the biggest, perhaps, is one of access. In an era when budget flights zip across Europe with the regularity of London buses, Albania has remained immune to the affections of the major low-cost carriers.
Again, there are reasons for this – the chief one being that, at time of writing, Albania has only one fully functioning international airport. This is Tirana Nënë Tereza (named, somewhat remarkably, after Mother Teresa, who was born in what is now Macedonia to parents of Albanian and Indian ethnicity in 1910).
It lies 11 miles north-west of the capital (Tirana) – but, until recently, has been as much a hindrance as a help to anyone wishing to visit the country. Heavily modernized between the turn of the millennium and 2005, it was also – from 2001 to 2016 – the beneficiary of a government-sanctioned monopoly which made it the only Albanian airport permitted to receive flights from overseas. This left it at odds with the policy pursued by no-frills airlines like Ryanair and easyJet to touch down at secondary rather than main air hubs (and pay lower landing fees as a result). Indeed, as it stands, there is no secondary international airport in Albania. If you want to travel in from Britain at the moment, your only option is the scheduled British Airways service from Gatwick (to Tirana).
Things, though, are changing. The lifting of the airport monopoly last year has sent a couple of small balls rolling. Kukës Shaikh Zayed Airport (so-called because it has fledgling funding from Abu Dhabi) has been given the nod to begin welcoming international flights – although, while Ryanair and Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air have expressed an interest in using Kukës, no airlines have yet announced plans to fly there.
Not that the airport will ever be a funnel-point for fly-and-flop tourism. Kukës is located in the north-east of the country, almost 100 miles from Durrës and its beaches – making it an unfeasible component in cheap bucket-and-spade deals. The same, however, cannot be said for Saranda, where talk of a new international airport has been afoot since 2016. This would need to be constructed from scratch (probably – a small airstrip already exists, but it is not fit for international purpose), and would not open until the middle of the next decade at the earliest. But it would be a considerable boost to tourism in the region. At the moment, if you wish to visit Saranda from the UK, the most “direct” way is to fly to Corfu (with, for example, easyJet), and take a short ferry ride east. Unsurprisingly, very few British tourists can be bothered to make the effort.
Wizz has also joined the party. Earlier this week, it announced that, as of May 3, it will fly to Tirana three times a week from its Luton base – belatedly introducing a low-cost link that would deliver tourists to the beach (the airport is just 20 miles from Durrës).
So, will this be a spark for British bargain-seekers making a dash for the Albanian Riviera? Well, maybe. But maybe not yet. One of the other issues with seaside breaks in Albania is that the standard of accommodation in the tourism heartlands is, while not quite the phalanx of creaking concrete communist bolt holes that popular opinion might imagine, barely more than adequate. There are no luxury retreats in Durrës, no boutique spa hideaways – merely mid-range medium- and high-rise blocks that, though perfectly comfortable and clearly of muster for the domestic market, may not quite meet the expectations of British travelers who could just as easily go to Greece.
Many of these properties were thrown up in a first rush of building work once Albania had finally shrugged off communism’s chill grip. The country was the last in central and western Europe to escape the Cold War, only really emerging, blinking into the light, in 1992 – three years after Hungary, Poland et al had torn down the Iron Curtain. This political tardiness is another reason why, in terms of development in tourist infrastructure, Albania is behind the curve. The sense of release the changing of the guard unleashed could also have wreaked destruction. In Durrës and Saranda, the mid-Nineties saw hotels thrown up swiftly and with little thought for urban planning. The consequences were, in some cases, unfriendly on the eye – and threatened, at one point, to ruin large strips of the coast.
Thankfully, Albania seems to have pulled back from the mistakes made by some of the Spanish Costas in the Sixties and Seventies. In the last four years, there has been a tightening of the rules on building permits, and a clampdown on cowboy construction. “We will not legalese anything that was built illegally along the coast, and there will be penalties for those who have massacred the coastline, archeological parks or protected natural habitats,” MP and government spokesman Artan Lame said in August 2013.
This determination to take a more measured approach to tourism – and with it, the crucial realization that Albania’s 265 miles of shoreline, much of which is still unblemished, is the country’s greatest natural asset – is starting to bear different fruit.
Back in June, I took a 25-mile drive north-west from Tirana, inching around the outskirts of Durrës, and heading onward to Lalzit Bay. Here, I encountered this change of tack made manifest. High-end villa development Residencies Primavera is already open, with a path leading from the rear of the property onto a sandy expanse behind. Adjacent, two sizeable plots are ear-marked for five-star resort developments – one of which, being built by the Spanish hotel group Melia, is starting to rise from the ground.
Albania is already an intriguing country to visit – Tirana is an increasingly cosmopolitan city, while the country’s wealth of ancient archaeological sites (including the likes of Apollonia and Butrint) might almost rival Italy. But in a time when question marks linger over traditional beach destinations such as Egypt and Turkey, it could be that, in the next three or four years, its main appeal will be as a place in the sun. Mystery solved.