Albanian world heritage site struggles without tourists

GJIROKASTRA, ALBANIA (AP) – Seeing city streets in 2019 flooded by tourists enjoying its beauty was a dream come true for residents of Gjirokastra, a city in southern Albania recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its Ottoman-period architecture.

It ended precipitously when the world locked down.

Called “the city of stone” due to its two-storey houses with turrets dating back to the 17th Century, Gjirokastra and a second Albanian town, Berat, were inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2005 as “rare examples of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period”.

Following renovation of the city’s centre, Hysen Kodra was among locals who turned their 200-300-year-old houses with wooden facades and stone slabs roofs into a guest lodging. After all, the 700 tourist beds in the city centre could hardly accommodate the 120,000 visitors to Gjirokastra the year before the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic cut it abruptly, as if with a knife,” said Kodra, whose 13-room guesthouse on top of a hill stands empty.

An aerial view of Gjirokastra town, southern Albania. PHOTO: AP

“Until 2019 we were so good, with more and more visitors every day, and in 2020 all the booked rooms were cancelled.”

The 13th-Century fortress on the hilltop of the city and the radial-shaped, 17th-century Old Bazaar where tourists walk the cobblestone streets to taste dishes like pasha qofte (meatball) or oshaf (dried figs with sheep’s milk), or shop for handicrafts, carpets, traditional folk costumes and the like are the main attractions in Gjirokastra.

There’s also the ethnographic museum located at the former home of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the newly renovated museum devoted to Nobel literature laureate Ismail Kadare.

Tourism in Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, brought about nine per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019, and the government had hoped to raise that to 10 per cent this year.

Kodra’s guesthouse overlooks Gjirokastra, which has a full-time population of 30,000, right at the place where a monument to Hoxha was placed after his death but removed in 1991 after the fall of the communist regime.

For a few years after Hoxha’s death in 1985, Kodra’s family was moved away to leave space for the monument. After a students’ protest toppled the communist regime in 1990 the family got its property back.

With no other industry left in the city, the government concentrated on renovation of its typical homes and streets to gear up tourism.

The turreted homes were turned into small shops, coffee bars or restaurants, and there was a four-fold increase of visitors between 2015 and 2019, most of them coming from Italy, Poland, France and Spain, with smaller numbers coming from the United States, Canada and Australia.