Western Balkans—Tourism on the Cusp

[Above: Trebinje, Bosnia. All photos by Cristina Angeles; videos by Juan Carlos Rodarte.]

Our video project on the Adriatic’s Balkan coast shows what tourism should do—and not do.

Here at the Destination Stewardship Center we want to encourage sustainable tourism practices that preserve today’s impressive places for enjoyment tomorrow.

The Adriatic coast of the western Balkan peninsula is one of those places—a destination of great promise and also at great risk. Imposing mountains rise only a short distance inland from the coast, a combination that supports a diversity of ecosystems. The region enjoys a warm to hot Mediterranean climate, which makes it an appealing destination for vacations—and hasty development. Similarly attractive parts of the Mediterranean have already been touristically exploited. Just look over at some of Greece’s heavily built-up islands to see what is coming.

So we on the video team went there to see how the area is doing, and why it’s special. Listen to the people who live there talk about their home, in their own voices:

The hope of course is for tourism in the region to generate jobs and raise local people’s quality of life. But is it being done in the best way? We found the answer was “yes” in some places, definitely “no” in others.

Thanks to the collaboration with Western Balkans Geotourism Network (WBGN), we spent 21 days documenting the Adriatic regions of Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and meeting the people associated with the WBGN. They are the heroes of this story, working against tough odds to turn tourism in a better direction.

Our expedition revealed three red flags signalling touristic overkill: the coastal city of Sarandë and the archaeological zone of Butrint in Albania, and the coastal development at Kotor Bay, Montenegro.

Auron Tare, Albanian National Coastline Agency Director, shared with us his professional experience as a pioneer in the preservation of Albanian culture. Listen to his observations on overcommercialized Sarandë, once a quaint fishing town:

“The town went completely crazy with its tourism concept.”


In the red flag areas, rocketing growth of globalized products was overwhelming more sustainable local commerce and sacrificing the cultural diversity of lifestyle, so basic to destination appeal. Tourist complexes deface the scenery with buildings that do not respect the landscape. Reinforcing all this are thousands of people hopping on and off all-inclusive cruise ships.

Now overtourism has come to the Greco-Roman ruins at Butrint National Park, the World Heritage site preserved and managed by Auron Tare. He explains what’s happening:

“Butrint is at an overtourism crossroads.”
As for Kotor Bay, we asked our guide Jack Delf, chairman of the Western Balkans Geotourism Network, why tourism was out of control on the coast of Montenegro. Is a change in direction possible? The only way, he says, is to emphasize value instead of volume:
 

 
“We can’t preserve this through mass tourism.”
 
Is everything lost? Not at all. Various NGO’s and companies are seeking to develop and promote tourism products under management plans that protect the land, empower the locals, and provide them with market opportunity.
 
Nancy Tare, Albania Regional Director for the WBGN (and Auron’s wife), told us that a key factor for sustainability is the important role that locals can play in taking care of what is theirs. They have in their hands the power to sell their land, or not. They are the only ones that can preserve their natural, cultural, and social resources. Here’s Nancy on the true meaning of sustainability:
 

“Keep it real is by keeping locals involved. That’s a success.”

As an example, we present the destination Nivicë, the first village in southern Albania’s Project Nivicë route. What is it about this initiative that has impressed us? Its authenticity. Auron Tare is project coordinator, working with an emphasis on restoring vernacular architecture:

“What we’re trying to do here is set an example.”
 
Auron has a personal connection to Nivicë. “He is building a house in Nivicë on his grandparent’s land and enjoys spending time there with his family,” notes our producer, Erika Gilsdorf, who sums up his difficult task this way: “The town was abandoned during war, and now people are coming back. He wants it to grow and thrive but keep its charm and authenticity.  He struggles with maintaining balance.  If you promote it, it is at risk of exploitation. If you don’t, it is at risk of poverty and abandonment. So, he’s trying to see if they can manage it sustainably, grow organically, and do so slowly to handle challenges as they arise.”
 
For projects like this and in general for the Eastern Balkans, is there an economic argument for their sustainability? Yes! Jack Delf explains why:
 
“Adventure tourism is now a 680 billion dollar business, growing at 23 percent per year.”


During our expedition we had the opportunity meet the various personalities who are charting the routes to sustainability. One of them was Kirsi Hyvaerinen, a board member of the Global Ecotourism Network, who calls for redefining tourism for her adopted home of Montenegro, confirming that the ultimate goal is to capture value and not volume, and that local people are the key:

“It’s not too late.”


Environmental millionaires?

In a globalized world, poverty is commonly equated with lack of money. We often heard that a main reason for growing tourism in the region is to generate jobs and so improve the people’s quality of life. Whereas the purpose may be noble and the solution correct in economic terms, it is precisely the migration of this concept into this region that we see as a major challenge. What we admired in the people we met was the means of production they already have, the freedom they have to enjoy their day, the air they breathe away from polluting factories, and their community lifestyles.

In this sense, they are environmental millionaires. They can feed themselves with pesticide-free produce harvested in their backyards, far from the problems that come with the processed products of the industrialized world. Many people in the Balkans that have no job can still live off their land.

Food of the land, Albania.
Bounty of the land, Albania.

To learn more about why we found so much of the western Balkans to be an unspoiled, immaculate, and authentic place, please see our day-by-day account posted on National Geographic Open Explorer. It was fitting to post our expedition there, since the WBGN came into being in conjunction with the National Geographic’s geotourism initiatives of the 2000s, which defined geotourism as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.”

What have we learned from this raw, unexpected travel experience? Erika offers an answer. She writes: “Hidden in stone, food, and ancient trails, far from the coasts, lies the hope and heart of old Europe. And in its past lies its future; not just for the western Balkans, but for destinations around the world who struggle to maintain the balance of growth and preservation.

Please let us know your comments, doubts, or questions about this beautiful region. We are Erika Gilsdorf, producer of the expedition, Juan Carlos Rodarte, in charge of videography and editing, and Cristina Angeles, your storyteller.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

five × two =