Monday, September 17, 2007

ALBANIA: A Few Greeks Discover Their Neighbour
By Apostolis Fotiadis
Photo: Apollonia Parc, the old Helenic City in Albania
ATHENS, Sep 17 (IPS) - Some years ago most Greeks knew Albania only as an unknown frontier. It was a country from which impoverished migrants crossed into Greece in search of a job and a better life; a place that people were leaving, where nobody wanted to go.

A gradual if limited integration of the newcomers and the opening of a newborn market for Greek business in Albania has created an opportunity for a few in the Greek public to learn more about their neighbour.

Historical links have been rediscovered. The flow of people has started becoming reciprocal even if marginally.

Stefanos Hatzimanolis is the one travel agent to have sensed this change. The last two years he has been organising holiday packages to Albania.

"People who buy packages for Albania are either experienced passengers who want to add this destination to the list of places they have been to, or they are motivated by curiosity," he told IPS. "They are well educated, and they are usually informed about their destination."

His customers come mostly from northern Greece, and are interested in four or five-day excursions which include transportation, hotels, meals and a tourist guide. "It makes it easier for the visitor since these services do not work perfectly all along the country. Currently we move more than 800 people annually by airplane or bus."

The trip that the agency offers covers many sights and cities in central and south Albania.

"Visitors are usually impressed with the castle at Berat, the city of Durres, and the city centre in Tirana. The cost of the trip is between 295 and 340 euro, depending on the services someone wants to buy, plus any personal expenses. It is very difficult to convince someone to travel to Albania for more than that at the moment," Hatzimanolis said.

The trip focuses on the ancient heritage and the ethnic Greek element of the country. Specific emphasis is given to the archaeological site Butrinti, 290km south of Tirana, and other southern cities with an ethnic Greek population like Gjirokaster, Himara and Sarande.

Greek tourists say they are attracted largely by ethnic ties and feelings.

Nikos Petalotis, a 33-year-old dentist, said his visit to Albania was a dream come true. "It is important for me to visit this region of Hellenic culture about which I have read many books and heard innumerable stories. I am interested in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments."

Andrea Litis, a pensioner, says he goes for personal reasons. "My parents came from a small village outside Gjirokaster, but they never managed to return after the Second World War. Indirectly, through their stories, I became nostalgic about these places. I felt strong emotions during my trip."

Despite the country's natural beauty and the attractiveness of its cultural wealth, Albania's tourism development is widely challenged by lack of infrastructure.

"It is obvious that they need a new road circulation network," said Natassa Siniori, a journalist who has travelled extensively around Albania. "Distances are not calculated by kilometres but by minutes or hours. Narrow streets with bad quality tarmac make an otherwise pleasant journey tiring and difficult."

But problems with infrastructure do not deter all. Hatzimanolis says cultural and other attractions more than compensate.

"Perhaps the tourist sector and basic infrastructure still need a lot of advancement. But the will of people to improve things, and their limitless interest in opening up this market creates good conditions for cooperation. And local cuisine and Albanian culture are likely to grab the attention of the tourist from Greece and the broader Mediterranean." (END/2007)

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