• Photo: Albanian Heritage Center

  • Some of the bunkers that remain around the country from Enver Hoxha's regime. Photo Axel Kronholm.

  • The ruins of Buthrotum, a Unesco site. Photo Axel Kronholm.

Features Tourism is endangering Albania’s cultural heritage

In Albania, its cultural heritage is threatened by tourism. Fairytale castle are being converted to hotels with no respect for their history. Albanians politicians believe that they cannot afford to preserve the past for the future, says reporter Axel Kronblom.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1:2013, page 7
Published on balticworlds.com on May 13, 2013

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Unique medieval castles are being turned into resorts with tennis courts to attract more tourists to Albania. With poverty widespread in the country, most Albanians have bigger problems to think about, and the political leadership seems unwilling to act.

“We are the last secret in Europe,” says Albanian Minister of Tourism and Culture Aldo Bumçi, when he meets with me in his office in central Tirana.

He reports that 2.7 million foreign nationals visit Albania every year — about as many as the number who live in the country. There is no doubt that tourism is important to Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe. Agriculture is still the most important sector in the economy and employs more than half the population, but tourism now accounts for 4.6 percent of GDP, and 140,000 people work in the industry.

Bumçi talks happily and passionately about the country’s potential, about the majestic mountains in the north and the olive groves in the south. When I bring up the sustainability aspect of the tourism industry and the risk that Albania’s cultural heritage will be neglected, the mood changes. His answers and tone become more abrupt.

“There is always risk of exploitation. But I assure you, this issue is our highest priority,” he says.

Missed chances

In another part of the city, I meet Artan Lame, director of the Albanian Heritage Center. From his office, he and his small staff are trying to make people aware of what is happening to the country’s cultural heritage.

Artan Lame says that after the fall of communism, there were opportunities to coordinate and plan the development of tourism while instituting strong protection of the cultural heritage.

“The politicians missed those chances. Every government since, left-wing and right-wing alike, has been incapable of controlling development.”

With his own political background — Artan Lame has served as director of cultural heritage at the Ministry of Culture and as deputy minister of territory and tourism with previous governments and is an active member of the Socialist Party — he has first-hand knowledge of the state’s inability to deal with the country’s deteriorating cultural treasures.

Albania’s cultural heritage consists of relics of the Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, and the later periods of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Over the centuries, the country has been a cultural melting pot, a confluence of east and west.

This cultural heritage is now crumbling away, either through natural deterioration or due to construction of various kinds. As an outside observer, one should be wary of judging the Albanians. Considering the poverty, it makes perfect sense that people in places like Gjirokastër would rather put new and cheap metal roofs on their houses than restore the slate roofs using traditional and costly artisan methods. This is their country and not a museum.

A political issue

But above all, there is a lack of political will to preserve the cultural heritage. Artan Lame leaves the office and comes back with a banner.

“Look at this. This is what they want to do with the castle,” he says with anger in his voice.

The banner depicts Lezhë Castle in northwestern Albania. Built by the Illyrians, this was the place where General Skanderbeg gathered all the warring Albanian tribes to an assembly in 1444 and managed to unite them in joint opposition to the Ottomans. Skanderbeg is now a national hero and the 1444 assembly in Lezhë is commonly described as the occasion when the first seeds of a movement towards Albanian nationhood were sown.

In addition to the castle ruins, the banner shows the construction plans for a resort hotel that a southern Italian investment company wants to build. Inside the walls of the castle, they have drawn up a hotel with a large tennis court. The project has been given a green light by the government, but was recently put on hold after the public criticism following a campaign mounted by Artan Lame and his colleagues.

“The castle in Lezhë is very meaningful to us Albanians. The government claims the hotel would double tourism in the region, but we don’t think that is reason enough to destroy the castle.”

Artan Lame is happy that he managed to stop the project, at least temporarily, but it was a small victory in the overall scheme of things. He brings out pictures of castles in Shkodra, Preza, Durrës, Kruja, Elbasan, and Bashtova — castles that have already been destroyed or are endangered.

“The government speaks a lot of pretty words about how we must protect our cultural heritage, but at the end of the day, they are the ones who grant permits for construction projects like the one at Lezhë Castle.”

Bleak future

It has been almost three years since Artan Lame founded the Albanian Heritage Center. Much of its work since has been devoted to informing the public.

“We need politicians who act responsibly. But if the voters don’t care about their cultural heritage, the politicians won’t either.”

The lack of public interest in these issues is evident in the Heritage Center’s budget — virtually all donations come from abroad. The organization has a total staff of about ten people.

“We are not big, but we can make a lot of noise,” says Lame, and asks whether I am familiar with the Albanian film Tokë e përgjakur.

I am not, but I decide to check it out after the interview. The film was made in 1979 and is called Bloody Land in English. It tells the story of a lone partisan hiding in a building besieged by Italian troops. The partisan moves from window to window to fool the Italians into believing he is not alone. Artan Lame says his organization has learned a lot from this partisan.

If you ask Artan Lame, the future is bleak. In the film, the Albanian partisan is exposed in the end and meets his death. Things hardly need go quite so badly for Lame, but he is fighting an uphill battle and reforms are slow in coming. He gives me a pamphlet published by his organization. It lists fifty cultural heritage monuments — everything from bridges to houses and castles — destroyed in just the last few years. ≈

Note: The article was previously published in the Finnish weekly Ny Tid [New times].
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