Gjirokastra – a tourism destination?

Hello Everyone!

After being here for a while now – almost a month!- I feel a summarize and analyze of Gjirokastra’s qualities as a tourism destination is needed for you to understand my world…

This is what we thought we would find before we came to Gjirokastra:

  • A city the scale of a third of Halmstad. A little modern part and a bigger old part.
  • An old city with an old way of life: a quiet and slow little country town.
  • Few or none could speak English
  • Few or no tourist services and information existed including organizations

These and more prejudices we had were only confirmed when googling the destination and reading on their official website. But oh were we surprised!

Driving into town I asked myself where I was – this couldn’t possibly be it? – Sure here is an old area situated below an old castle, but there is also this big modern town of which I knew nothing. Here life is busy, loud and constantly developing – buildings popping up here and there- shopping, restaurants etc etc – we havn’t been able to see neither old nor new town fully yet!
And in the old town (called the the bazaar) tourism services were very much developed: there are are hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, tour guides, souvenir shops. Present is also and a whole bunch of organizations working on developing tourism together with the aims of preserving the cultural heritage. They have already written a tourism guidebook, information pamphlets and have several maps over the town.
We questioned ourselves (and we still do!) -why we are here and what can we help with? We are still trying to find a project suitable for our education level and time being here. This is done by interviewing the different organizations and analyzing the current situation. These are some of our conclusions we’ve come to so far:

– There are a lot of organizations involved in tourism development: Cultural heritage without borders, tourism service office, The Municipality and Gjirokastra Foundation. These have tons of goals and visions written on tourism development and they implement these objectives through projects such as restoring an old house into a hostel, restoration camps to beautify the community, restoring a house to hold projects in developing souvenirs etc.

– Many strategy plans have been written on how Gjirokastra can develop and attract more tourists. Some examples are “Gjirokastra Tourism Development strategy, 2011”, “A key tourism development project, 2006” “Gjirokastra moving forward 2006” etc etc and they have many sponsors and international organizations to fund the implementation:
(SIDA, Packard humanities institute, European union, Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development,  The international coalition of sites and conscience, The German Embassy, The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, The Swizz agency for development and cooperation, USAID, The centre for International Migration and Development) Only to name a few! However it is unclear why these strategies and projects have not been implemented yet. The strategy for “Gjirokastra moving forward” from 2006 has a lot of practical examples and even budget calculations but still we see nothing of this when walking around the town..

– Gjirokastra doesn’t have any marketing outside the city. Whilst in it you can find maps, brochures and guidebooks – but how do they attract the tourists? So far we assume this is being done this way: people go to Albania and by a guidebook over the whole country. In the guidebook they read about Gjirokastra and go here. Voila!

– The infrastructure, basically how to arrive to Gjirokastra, is tricky. You need to be a backpacker to know the ways of traveling in an undeveloped country. First of all there are no timetables available on websites or in other cities for busses (train doesn’t exist). For example when coming for Saranda you walk around asking people “Gjirokastra?” and they point you to some corner or a random street where a minibus leaves when full.
There is no center in Gjirokastra where buses stop really… or there is a place but it is not being signed- it’s just a big roundabout on the main road in the new parts of torn. And where do you go next? There is no tourism office in new town or the old.

– English is not spoken by many and Albanian isn’t related to German, Latin, Spanish, French or any other languages we might learn in Sweden. This makes our everyday life here a bit isolated actually but we have learned to say Hello, Goodbye, Yes, No and Thank you and by this you can get far; you point to the thing you want to buy and they write down a prize. You say yes or no, pay and leave. It’s more tricky at the restaurants when they don’t have translated menus or can explain it in english. But the worst you can end up with is a by mistake ordering an appetizer instead of main course.
In the end however it is hard to develop participant tourist attractions without language skills.

– There is not any target market in particular that Gjirokastra diverts its attention to. The city is simply there for anyone to explore. By the way of transport I’d say backpackers are the main target – but there is only one hostel and that is freezing cold and there are no activities on site set up for backpackers (nightclubs, horse riding, climbing, caving, trekking) By the information in guidebooks I’d say target market is people interested in architecture and heritage. But how do they get here and how do they get by when people speak so little english? And what activities can they do more than sightseeing?

– Down to the bottom line: There are simply no activities set up to attract tourists for more than daytrip sightseeing. There is the castle which takes an hour or two to explore. Then there is the ethnographic museum and Skenduli house – that takes the same amount of time. Sure you can eat and sleep to your hearts content but what more?
This is the biggest problem people keep telling us about. It is causing the lack of funds to develop Gjirokastra; busses of tourist come to the castle then leave without even eating in the city. The money leaks to daytrip organizers from Saranda and Corfu.

Thus our conclusion so far on what is needed in Gjirokastra is: More activities!
There are much potential for both cultural and nature tourism ones, what is needed is thus investment money, entrepreneurs and English speaking staff. More attractions would attract more people to stay and money not to leak. This would make services earn more money (more people would eat at the restaurant, buy souvenirs etc) of course. The businesses could spend the revenue on developing more activities and services and they could afford to restore the world heritage in which their businesses operate! Hopefully English skills would be developed or improved by these longer encounters with tourists (economic and cultural sustainability) The community would earn money on tax, this could be spent on developing ecological sustainability: recycling wastes for example. Tourism certainly is a path to sustainability!

So what is our part in this – what can we do? We don’t know yet. Right now we are writing a kind of status report to sort out what is being done at the moment and by whom? What amount of services and attractions exists and what plans are there for new onces? Next step is to see what we can do with this information. Hopefully we can develop some useful recommendations, guidelines and even some real tourism activities. As always I will keep you posted on our project!

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