Calling all Saudi tourists to Albania

Dhermi beach
Updated 12 May 2016
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Calling all Saudi tourists to Albania

Albania’s virgin natural environment and an enjoyable Mediterranean climate are some of the features that make it a top tourist destination of 2016.
Sami Shiba, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Albania to Saudi Arabia, explains in an interview to Arab News why his country should top the list of must-visit holidays spots this year:

1. What can you tell us about the values and tourist resources of Albania?
The tourist potential of the coast and mountain areas of Albania is exceptional. As you may know, Albania has been ranked as the first country to travel to in 2016 by the Gazette Review and many international sites. The magnificent coastline where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet, the natural beauty, its geographical position and its mild climate make Albania a special place in Europe. Albania should be the first stop for all tourists who are seeking to enjoy the nature, the history or the food of this unique tourism destination.
Albania has a virgin natural environment and a very enjoyable Mediterranean climate making Albania a top tourist destination during the entire year. Recently, Albanian tourism has grown, with the offering of touristic packages that allow its most precious traits to shine, such as: “sun and sea tourism”, “history and culture tourism,” “mountain tourism”, along with other growing fields.
Albania’s seaside has a length of 450 km, with many gulfs, which allows for its great potential in the field of seashore tourism and makes it the main source of tourism in that country. Albania has a considerable number of beaches with fine sand and pines, as well as rocky shores, along the coast of the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea, where within minutes tourists can experience the mountain climate of Llogara and warmth of the coast of Dhermi, a feat made possible by the country’s impressive natural features. Albania is known for its riviera with beautiful beaches, especially Himara, Borsh and Dhermi beaches. In this area, I would like to distinguish the location called “Blue Eye Spring”, (Syri i Kalter), an unexpected oasis in the middle of nowhere, that is a natural spring where crystal clear water bubbles up from 50 meters below the surface. The frigid water gently passes over the white sand producing a stunning turquoise color which turns into a pretty green as it travels around the mountains. I want to mention the wonderful underwater caves of Viroi Lake (Gjirokastra city). It is a natural underwater treasures and has a depth of 249 meters and is surrounded by wild pines on the outside.
Albania has important resources for the touristic enjoyment of its mountainous areas. The Albanian Alps to the North, the mountains along the Ionian Sea, the Kruje, Berat, (called ‘the city of a thousand windows’), Gjirokaster (a historic UNESCO-listed town surrounded on all sides by stunning mountain ranges), Saranda, etc., offer great opportunities to receive tourists during the year, including during the winter, which has a mild climate. Albania offers traditional housing in its mountainous regions allowing for an interesting experience of cultural immersion. Mostly you will stay in old traditional stone houses called “Kulas”, where the local hosts spoil you with homemade bread, honey, cheese and delicious homemade dishes, all stemming from their own domestic produce.
The accommodation units, which are both special and traditional, the rich cuisine, affordable prices, accompanied by the historic Albanian hospitality create a truly wonderful ambience, making Albania a sought after destination by Western tourists who have already visited the country and who frequently return to it.
The Peaks of the Balkans Trail region, which belongs to the Alpine border region between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, is a destination that is rising in popularity on the maps of tourists around the world. The transnational Peaks of the Balkans Trail leads the visitor on a unique experience through one of the most remote and wild mountainous regions of the Western Balkans. Using shepherd paths and footways, the trail winds through high alpine mountains up to 2,300 meters above sea level and leads through wild mountain scenery, with a diversity of breathtaking landscapes, varying from green valleys to crystal-clear mountain lakes, waterfalls, rivers and remote picturesque mountain villages, in which time seems to have stopped — a veritable “hidden treasure” for lovers of nature and hikers from around the globe.
Growing interest and coverage around the world is already making the Peaks of the Balkans Trail a world famous destination. In this area, I would like to distinguish Valbona River, one of the most beautiful rivers, which is part of the Valbona National Park, a pristine area in the North of Albania.
Albania, located at the crossroads of two ancient civilizations, the Greeks and the Romans, has a rich historical and cultural heritage recognized as part of the world’s cultural heritage that warrants special protection. This Albanian historical and cultural heritage can be seen and felt in its natural parks, archaeological sites, art galleries, photographs and movie archives, citadels and castles, religious monuments and folk homes, in its old rock-paved streets, as well as in its museums.
Butrint, in Southern Albania, is one of these archaeological sites with an indisputable value, which has already been included in the UNESCO project for the protection of the world’s cultural patrimony. Cities with a long and vast history, such as Berat and Gjirokastra — also under the protection of the UNESCO, not only bring a unique value to the world’s cultural heritage, but are also a beautiful experience for the visitor walking through them. Also, Apollonia, Antigonea, Voskopoja are remnants of a past filled with culture and significance, and have a major archaeological potential. I am sure the rich history will leave any interested foreign visitors pleasantly surprised.

2. How do the authorities in Albania help the tourist sector?
The Albanian government is working with determination on the country’s road infrastructure, in order to further improve a modern road network which would allow Albanian citizens, visitors, and foreign investors to easily and effortlessly experience the whole country. In addition, I want to emphasize that special attention has been paid to the exposure of Albanian tourism through different fairs in many countries.

3. Since it is always good for a traveler to know some words in the language of the country he/she visits, would you please teach us a few common expressions in your language, such as, good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good bye, cheers and thank you?
Yes, in the order you mentioned them, these expressions in the Albanian language would be: mirëmëngjes, mirëdita, mirëmbrema, mirupafshim, gëzuar and faleminderit.
Albanians are friendly and very open toward foreigners who visit their country. If you are lucky enough to be invited to visit an Albanian’s home, you will be treated as royalty. The guest will be shown the highest respect by being offered a seat at the head of the table. The guest is then regaled with the best the family has to offer, usually reserved for the head of the household.
Albania is a safe country for visitors. Its tradition of hospitality affords great respect for foreigners; almost all Albanians will go out of their way to provide assistance when you are in need — whether you are lost or in trouble.
The Albanian monetary unit is called “Lek.” The currency floats freely but is quite stable. Presently, the exchange rate is about 140 lek to the Euro and about 125 lek to the US dollar.

4. Tell us about the Albanian climate.
Albania has a mild, Mediterranean climate. The Ionian Cost, in particular, is very clement; with average winter temperatures of 10-12 °C. The country enjoys a good deal of sunny weather, with an average of around 300 sunny days each year. Most of Albania’s annual rainfall occurs between late autumn and early spring; outside of the mountainous areas, it is unusual for it to rain in summer. In the summer, visitors often find the inland towns to be quite hot, with July usually being the warmest month. In Tirana, for example, temperatures occasionally reach 38 °C. The best places to be in midsummer are on the coast, where sea breeze keeps the average temperatures down to a more tolerable 25-35 °C, or in the high mountains.

5. Tell us about the cuisine and some of the Albanian traditional products.
Every region in Albania has its own unique dishes. Albanian cuisine is characterized by the use of various Mediterranean herbs such as oregano, black pepper, mint, basil, rosemary and more in cooking meat and fish. Olive oil and butter are also main ingredients. There are Albanian specialties that everyone likes plugged into the pizza-pasta menus as if they were in harmony. But there they are along with ferges, the popular Tirana specialty with cheese, eggs and bits of meat or liver and 27 other Albanian specialties including stews originating in Elbasan, meatballs from Korca and, cornmeal spinach mush from Gjirokastra, as well as many Mediterranean specialties. Albania, a traditionally agricultural country may be one of the last countries in Europe to have real seasonality in food, causing prices to be high.

6. How can a Saudi tourist visit Albania? Are there any specific requirements?
For Saudi travelers who want to come to Albania there aren’t any specific requirements. During the summer period, from May 15 2016 to Nov. 1 2016, Saudi citizens can travel to Albania without having to obtain a visa at the Embassy of Albania. Travel can be done with a passport. I want to seize this opportunity to invite Saudis tourists to take Albania into consideration as one of the best options when making their holiday plans. (see www.akt.gov.al).
Thank you, shukran!


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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.