I have had the pleasure of known Jonida Shano for as long as I have been in Albania. Both of us have a love for the country, its people, culture, food, and landscapes, and we have worked on a couple of projects together. I admire her deep love for her country and the need to promote development, sustainability, and a slower exploration approach. When I heard she had started her own tour agency, I was keen to learn more! In this interview, Jonida and I talked about respect for nature, Illyrian tombs, wine, and Albania’s 2000 cultural monuments.
What is Gaia?
GAIA is a tour operator born upon the idea of being able to respect nature and learn how to be one with her whenever moving.
GAIA is a way of travelling, sustaining nature, and traditions, focusing on man as a worker of the earth, the preservation of tradition, the craftsmanship of his hands and mind, a symbol of resilience and elasticity, and the pivot of our economy.
GAIA caters to travellers who are passionate and fascinated by stories, products, and territories, trying to bring them closer to the heart of the people who have embodied our land’s values in its various aspects.
Where did you get the idea from, and what is the aim?
For years, I have been working on different projects to develop and promote the territory, and my work has allowed me to travel extensively, even in the most hidden and remote parts of Albania.
This allowed me to get to know realities, people that keep the same spirit, recipes, ways of making and serving and traditions as 100 years ago.
In 2020 I had the opportunity to work on a project for the conservation and development of protected areas. The idea was born thanks to the character that I created and used in the four commercials to promote the protected areas.
The character is a young girl called GAIA who had spent the holidays in the Protected Areas of Albania, where she travelled steadily, accompanied by the Environmental Guard, admiring magnificent landscapes and places of extraordinary beauty.
From that, GAIA as a concept, a responsible travel concept, born from the love for nature, people, animals, and the earth’s taste.
GAIA wants to bring travellers from around the world closer to the heart of the Albanian people.
What is Albania’s touristic sector like?
Albania has a diverse topography, including mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, lakes, and beaches. The country offers many opportunities to explore cultural heritage and archaeological sites that date back to pre-Roman and Greek times. Amphitheatres, castles, Roman cities, monasteries, and ancient churches are among the archaeological points of interest that Albania has to offer, some of which are UNESCO protected sites.
If we want to classify the tourism sector in terms of its contribution to tourism revenue, there can be three main categories:
- Coastal tourism and maritime tourism. The beach, the sea and the sun have been the main product for years, accounting for the largest share of total tourism products.
- Natural tourism includes rural tourism, mountain tourism, ecotourism and outdoor activities (rafting, parachuting, mountain biking, fishing, trekking, mountaineering, hiking, horseback riding, study tours, etc.). As regards mountain tourism, there have been positive developments, which have resulted in a considerable number of tours organised.
- Thematic tourism includes a number of specific forms of tourism, such as agrotourism, cultural tourism (heritage, history, religion, etc.), enogastronomic tourism, event and business tourism and health tourism (thermal, welfare and medical).
Although archaeology, heritage and culture are identified as Albania’s strengths, this category is the most underrated and not the main purpose of visiting Albania.
What are the challenges and issues?
For example, to get from Albania’s only international airport in Tirana to southern Albania is a journey of five to six hours by road, so the infrastructure is an issue, listing energy infrastructure and municipal infrastructure such as water management on top of the apparent issue of transport infrastructure.
Providing access to tourist destinations, improving destination infrastructure, promoting tourism infrastructure development, regulation, standardisation and certification of accommodation facilities and other tourism services are some of the challenges that must be considered.
Pollution is another area that urgently needs to be addressed. Albania severely lacks waste management capacity. Plastic and other forms of pollution at tourist sites are rampant, a problem affecting nearby tourist hotspots like Croatia, which suffers from Albanian litter washing up on its beaches.
Another big issue across all sectors is informality: many businesses work in the informal economy in Albania, especially in the tourism sector. Often hotels and restaurants only take payment in cash, and many people are employed for the season and on a cash payment basis, which is not conducive to a high quality of service. Around 40% of payments in Albania are made in cash.
Albania’s tourism sector does not generate the job growth that its potential would otherwise suggest, despite what is believed. Establishing an efficient system of continuous professional training of human resources engaged in tourism, ensuring their employment, and supporting and assisting the small rural realities should be another important aspect to make people not disappear from Albania.
What is its biggest potential?
As the big figures show, tourists from Eastern Europe, Kosovo, and Macedonia come for beach holidays.
But maybe few know that there are about 2000 cultural monuments in Albania, making it the second-largest in the Mediterranean basin in terms of the density of cultural monuments.
However, according to “The national strategy for sustainable tourism development, 2019 – 2023”, the number of visitors to these cultural attractions is relatively low. Only 10% of foreigners will visit cultural monuments during their stay.
Currently, there are more than 790 protected areas, including:
Fifteen national parks; one marine park; two nature reserves; 22 managed nature reserves; five protected landscapes; three world heritage sites; four sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (RAMSAR Sites), with a surface area of 98,181 hectares; 45 important plant areas and 16 important bird areas.
Additionally, the protected areas themselves do not contribute much to the monetary benefit (added value) tourism may create in a certain region. Certainly, there is the potential to go beyond that in attracting people to other parts of the country.
What does Albania have that nowhere else has?
Albania has nothing special from other countries in Europe or the world [Editor’s Note: I would strongly disagree here!] but what is certain is Albania has another side of the tourist industry that is very different from the mass-market package tours and has too much to offer than just sun and beaches.
Albania has nature, mountains, food and culture, so it could attract independent and higher-paying tourists, aside from the charter flight package holiday crowd.
The special thing about Albania is that there is much more than what has been shown, and all this could be explored sustainably through food, culture and adventure tours that are tailored by small companies such as GAIAlbania and launched by individuals who are passionate about creating a very different kind of experience.
Talk to me about slow tourism and sustainable tourism and why it is important to support them?
How long can an action, production or a system that relies on specific resources (human, economic or natural) last? It will last for as long as it is designed to and for as long as it can replenish its resources.
This is our philosophy regarding slow and sustainable tourism.
However, if we want to give a larger definition, slow tourism is a slow travel to relax and increase energy as tourists spend time and absorb experiences while travelling and learn from nature, the local way of life, the limited use of technology and machinery, time spent at the accommodation and to travel in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way for the benefit of the tourists themselves and the local population.
Sustainable tourism is the concept of visiting somewhere as a tourist and trying to impact the environment, society, and economy positively.
So pretty much the same approach but the slow-sustainable philosophy should not be interpreted as a temporary phenomenon, a fashion, or an innovative touristic product, but rather as a life philosophy.
Slow tourism produces more comfortable trips to explore the destination more deeply, reduce the carbon footprint, and is committed to achieving an authentic travel experience.
It is focused on local connectivity and nearby attractions, consumption of local products, use of clean energy, environmental and ethical vision, and preservation of the quality of life of residents and tourists alike.
Tourism is not to be developed just because of the aim of “developing tourism” as such or bringing tourists to a specific region, but because – and only if – it, in the long run, creates an observable positive impact on the destination to be visited.
Compared to other Mediterranean countries, the development of tourism in Albania is still far from the potential represented by the country’s natural, historical and cultural assets. Infrastructure, accommodation capacities, quality of services, the tourism offer and products are all factors that have somewhat inhibited the sustainable and consistent development of tourism in Albania, leaving room for uncontrolled and chaotic development that has actually kept this industry in operation but endangered its sustainability in the long run.
Developing alternative types of tourism would boost communities, especially in rural areas, and the economy as a whole.
What are your top three best places for people to visit this year in Albania?
I want to mention four destinations worth visiting as much as it is possible slowly and sustainably:
- Church of Shirq, the place where princes got married!
A sidewall and a tall stone are all that is left of the church in which, centuries ago, Montenegrin and Albanian princes were crowned. Beneath its ruins still lie the bones of nameless princes, while the bones of other unfortunate nobles have come out of the tombs destroyed by erosion.
Only 40 minutes away from the city of Shkodra, to the right of the village named Dajç, on the edge of the place where the river Drin joins the Buna river, is the Church of Shirq. Its walls started to rise in the 6th century as a tribute to the two martyrs of the Byzantine church, Serçi and Baku, whose tombs are located near the Euphrates River in Asia, near a castle called Rozafa. The same name as the castle of Shkodra. Coincidence? We don’t think soo.
2. The medieval village of Tragjas, the abandoned and the forgotten.
Since ancient times, the region that lies in the Izvor River flow in the northwest of Orikum bay and Pashaliman has been one of the earliest settlements of historical importance to South Illyria.
The origin of the Tragjas settlement is difficult to be defined, considering that the village, throughout its history and because of the different wars, has been destroyed, abandoned and populated at various times. Archaeological traces of the urban development of the province in general date back to the Neolithic period, at the foot of Mount Lungara. Between villages of Dukat and Old Tragjas, over to the village of New Tragjas, 720 m above sea level, archaeological evidence confirms the Cave of the Kavasalli as a Neolithic settlement.
Traces of ancient settlements were also found on the hill called Sofa, where some Illyrian tombs were discovered and are believed to date back to IV-II BC.
3. Roshnik, one of the oldest and best wine regions in Albania,
Roshnik is located around 25 minutes from Berat and can trace its wine-making history to the 8th Century BC.
It sits on top of a hill, overlooking acres of farmland below. This area is a landscape of fertile rolling hills full of olive groves and vineyards, this area is exactly what comes to mind when you hear the words “wine country”.
There is a local legend about the Osumi’s mighty stream that has split in two as she divided the two brothers, Shpiragi and Tomori, who both fell in love with Osumi and killed each other out of jealousy and possession. But this is another story, like so many that this region hides and preserves with fanaticism.
4. The Illyrian Tombs of Selca e Poshtme
The Illyrian Tombs are located near the town of Pogradec in Albania near the village of Selcë e Poshtme. On the right bank of the river Shkumbin at an elevation of 1040 m above sea level lie the remains of the ancient city of Pelion and the accompanying necropolis. The Roman Via Egnatia led past it towards Thessaloniki. Though there are traces of human activity in Neolithic times, the settlement proper dates to the Iron Age (Illyrian proto-urban) through to the Illyrian urban period (5th to 2nd centuries BC) and reached its height under the settlement by the Illyrian tribe of Enchele in the later Iron Age and was also occupied in the Roman period as traces of a municipal building show. From the 4th to 1st centuries BC, the city was the royal residence of Illyrian kings and, therefore, also probably an important political and economic centre.
The royal tombs are located under the acropolis, carved into the rock, and created during the reign of the Illyrian kings (4th to 3rd centuries BC). The Royal tombs of Selca are UNESCO World Heritage protected monuments.
Originally published in The Balkanista.