News from the destinations: Albania
In an important week for New Deal Europe, we speak with one of the fathers of Albanian tourism, Enver Mehmeti, the owner of Vas Group. Enver through his company Albtours D, a trademark DMC in the Albanian and Balkan tourism sector, has been promoting and selling Albania since 1994, when this hidden Mediterranean gem opened to the world. We talk about past and present trends in Albanian tourism and the difficult balancing act of developing key infrastructure alongside responsible tourism projects.
NDE: Enver, it is our great pleasure and honour to have you as our Blog guest on the week we have just closed our registration process for NDE 2021. We know you have been in the industry for many years and have also organised many successful events in Albania. Let’s start by finding out more about you, your company, and your role in the Albanian tourism sector?
EM: Thank you for inviting me. I accepted the invitation with very much pleasure. I have been operating in the tourism field since 1994 when I founded the company Albtours D, which remains in business today: same name, same ownership, same purpose and luckily the same constant tendency to improve and grow healthy. Primarily, we see our duty as promoting the destinations that we cover in the best way possible, and having a wide experience in the sector, as generally happens with big companies which have been successfully in the market for a long time, we tend to be the trend setters in this sector.
NDE: You were one of the first ones to sign up to our 2021 event — in fact you were with us from the very beginning — exactly a year ago when we had to postpone our 2020 “live” event in London. You stayed with us and joined our first virtual event in October 2020. Can you give us your overview on how the last year has been for you, your business and in fact for tourism in Albania, which suffered the earthquake too just before the outbreak of Covid-19?
EM: The huge negative effect of the pandemic on the tourism sector is absolutely undeniable. Our work revolves around bringing people together and when this is the first thing to be banned, you can imagine the results are devastating. Add to this also the fact that we, Albania, were just dealing with the consequences of the earthquake in November 2019. With tourism, being one of the biggest income-earning industries in our country, these events shook the equilibrium, and we went from companies generating income to companies either closing down or changing direction in order to survive the impact.
Our company, having different sectors, luckily managed to stay strong, but all of us, not just me as GM, have been fully engaged in exploring new structural and managerial forms in order to keep the company in the best shape, and keep the employees within it motivated, despite the situation. We have a very good team of professionals who all share the company’s vision and thanks to this, I expect that when ‘normal’ starts again, it will be natural for us to pull together and work to achieve the best results.
The huge negative effect of the pandemic on the tourism sector is absolutely undeniable.…With tourism, being one of the biggest income-earning industries in our country, these events shook the equilibrium.
NDE: Can you tell us in a few sentences, how the tourism sector in Albania is organised? How do you operate, are there any associations, and what are their main aims?
EM: In Albania, there is the National Board of Tourism which is the major marketing channel of Albania. However, the private sector, such as our company and other travel agencies and tour operators, is much more present and more invested in this direction, hence also more up to date with everything within the sector. There are different associations, for the hoteliers, tour operators, and agencies which all serve the same purpose; highlighting the importance of the tourism industry in Albania as the fastest growing and lately among the most important industries in the country’s economy.
NDE: Everyone working in tourism has been delighted to hear the news this week, that Albania will provide vaccinations for the tourism workers and staff as one of the priorities. What else has the government done for the travel industry, to help it survive in the tough environment we have found ourselves in during the last 12 months and what is planned to help you through the upcoming Summer season?
EM: The Government has done what is primarily in its hands: making it easier for anyone visiting Albania, such as removing the need for vaccination proof, for PCR requirements and for quarantine. Starting from this summer, it has been announced that other restrictions, which have been in place until now such as curfew or limiting movement, will be lifted as well. This creates a rather nice environment for tourism to happen. We also expect that the Government will continue to work intensively on the mass vaccination of the population, and basically this is the biggest help, which will really make a difference. After this we really hope that in the rest of the world, travelling will start to have less restrictions.
NDE: Having started your first business in 1994, you are one of the pioneers of the tourism sector in Albania. Much has changed since then…. or has it? Can you tell us how it was back then and who were your first tourists? Do you have any interesting stories from your first years of promoting tourism in your country?
EM: There are so many indeed, because doing tourism and investing in this field, in a period when Albania and Albanians were coming out of an oppressive dictatorial regime, was mostly considered as an adventure rather than a wise business decision. I did practically everything in my company at that time, from picking up clients at airports to waiting in long lines at embassies for visas. I remember that at our first travel fairs, especially the big ones such as WTM in London, we used to travel with so many kilos of brochures because our area was not even known. People didn’t even know where Albania was geographically, so imagine trying to persuade people to travel there for their chosen vacation. We got many funny questions because this was a destination they had not heard of before. For instance it was normal to confuse the Balkans with the Baltic, or they would ask what vaccines do they need before coming there, and we were even asked about the wars going one in our area…. It really was an immense job, year after year, for decades really but luckily nowadays we have moved onto new forms of marketing tools, mostly accessed online.
[Travel to Albania in 1994] was mostly considered as an adventure rather than a wise business decision. I did practically everything in my company at that time, from picking up clients at airports to waiting in long lines at embassies for visas.
NDE: So looking at current marketing, in terms of Albtours D DMC and Vas Tour, what are your main markets and main products?
EM: As mentioned before, our company has different sectors which all together come under one roof: VAS Group. In terms of the destinations we operate in and the clients that we serve, the company is quite international. Within Vas Group are the following companies: Albtours D- the destination management company (DMC) which provides services within the 11 Balkan countries. This name has been in the market for more than 27 years, so we kept it as it is widely recognised. We have other DMCs too: VAS tour Austria- the DMC for Central Europe, and VAS Tour Turkey — the DMC for Turkey. We also have Premium Group, 3 hotels of 5 star standard in Durres on the Adriatic coast and finally, VAS Tour- the tour operating, outgoing department of the company. As you can see, Vas Group is big enough to compete, but each company within it, is small enough to care about details, and this is also the main orientation of our group: to provide quality product and for that quality to be the most competitive in the market.
Coming back to Albtours D, which is the one participating in New Deal Europe, 95% of the company’s product is tailor made, with a range covering daily tours, city breaks and multi-country tours, offering a combination of culture, nature, gastronomy, connecting with locals and simple leisure holidays. Although we serve an international basket of clients, our main markets are European with the top ones being Germany, Italy, Nordic, Countries and France, followed by America and lately the Asian market too.
NDE: It sounds like you will have very full meetings on 12th April. As you know, New Deal Europe is more than a travel fair. We are also very committed to the promotion and implementation of sustainable and responsible tourism. We remember Albania, at a press conference at WTM 2019, presenting their plans for a new sustainable approach to tourism development in the country. What is your view on this? How do you think Albania should handle its responsibility towards sustainable tourism development?
EM: The clients and partners we work with have really high awareness and requirements about sustainability, and therefore we have had a lot of support, which has helped us to approach the matter correctly. I can say that our company not only complies with sustainability in tourism but also promotes and supports it… and not only us as company, but also different associations are doing a very good job in this direction by sharing opinions and possible solutions, because our country, our area, is constantly developing, which sometimes means also interfering in jewels of nature in the name of a development such as an airport or for a hydropower plant for example.
NDE: It’s clear that Albania needs the infrastructure development, but equally it has the option to do it in the right and sustainable way, without losing any of its natural wonders. And there are some really good and important wonders, like Vjosa, which I am sure you are referring to here — the dam project which threatens one of your national parks. I guess some sort of protected area within the national park would sort this and help to keep the beautiful environment intact, while creating an enormous potential for the growth of a quality sustainable offer.
EM: With regard to sustainability, yes, I was referring to the Vjosa matter: we have offered these amazing resources to our clients and have had success with them — exactly why they are unspoiled — and every action which ruins this, even if it is in the name of infrastructure development, well we as tourism agencies, can’t say that we are thrilled about it. On the other hand, a second airport is very important for Albania, and would decentralize the economy and open up endless possibilities for new connections. What we would appreciate, and what we also advise from our part as actors in this sector, is that we can find ways to host both: not to build something new by ruining something that is already good, but find ways to develop the former and to preserve fanatically the latter.
NDE: In reality, how strong is the focus on sustainability in Albanian tourism? Is there enough awareness of the importance of sustainable and responsible tourism development, and is there the political will to carry it through in a post pandemic world?
EM: As mentioned before, and as happens in every country that is in the process of development, there are always those willing to sacrifice for a quick win project, but the good thing is there is also a strong and constant opposition to everything that affects the authenticity of our country. A big part of this are also the locals who want to continue to have what was given by default from nature, but also foreign associations who have united with local ones to protect and promote sustainability.
NDE: A number of international chains are developing in Albania right now. Do you see this as a positive for tourism development or a threat to the heritage?
EM: For a small country like Albania, but also for the other Balkan states, the presence of these internationally known chains is seen as an indicator of the increasing interest in our area. It is true that our government has offered a kind of subsidy package for these chains, of which we are supportive, in order for them to be present in our country. This project affects mainly the capital city, Tirana, and has the MICE sector in mind; names such as Marriott or Hilton are already here and others are expected such as Hyatt, although the pandemic has delayed some of these projects. Along the coast we are seeing the first steps with the presence of Accor and the Melia Group.
A second airport is very important for Albania, and would decentralize the economy and open up endless possibilities for new connections.
NDE: Enver tell us, what is your favourite tourism product or place to visit in your beautiful country. What is your ‘hidden gem of Albania’?
EM: Honestly, all of it! This also because, due to good infrastructure, in a matter of one to two hours you can change completely the scenery of your location. In less than one hour from Tirana, once you have finished work, you can reach the sunset in a wide-open sandy beach overlooking the Adriatic, or, if you decide, in a matter of hours you can wake up among the Alps with scenery that leaves you speechless. I have had the opportunity to live and work everywhere in the world, but I am here in Albania and I am here by choice!
NDE: Your passion for Albania is obvious. What are the things which are unique to Albania that you would like to highlight to people thinking of including it in their programme?
EM: To live fully is part of our normal everyday life and it is just natural for our country to indulge everyone visiting it and welcome you into this mindset. The 300 days of sun, the beautiful and diverse nature, a cuisine so tasty that it will make you forget any diet plan, interesting history and rich culture can fill from one day or multiday stays…but, what is the ultimate resource? It is definitely the people: joyful, hospital, helpful and always ready to go above and beyond to make a guest feel cared about.
We appreciate the work you do to bring together all the interested parties to bring tourism to one of the fastest growing areas — The Balkans.
NDE: You are one of New Deal Europe’s loyal partners, having been with us from the very beginning. What are your views on New Deal Europe and what are your expectations from the 2021 event?
EM: Each time that we find like-minded persons, who do their work responsibly and with maximum professionalism, we tend to stick around. You guys definitely fit this profile and we appreciate the work you do to bring together all the interested parties to bring tourism to one of the fastest growing areas — The Balkans. We had a very good experience first time and think that this will be repeated again this year. So keep on with the really great job you do!
NDE: Thank you Enver. That’s very kind. What is your message to the suppliers from the Balkans attending NDE21 and your message to our international buyers?
EM: Each of us participating at the New Deal Europe event is there to offer and be offered an option — a new one. I am sure all of us will be doing a great job, presenting our offer at its best. So, all I can say to each and every one is ‘have a great day and take every chance to promote yourself and your product correctly’. And to everyone who will push through to the end of the day to hear all of us, you are doing your part in developing an area that is beautiful, and still not known enough, but has so much to offer. Take every chance to enrich your options for your clients, and in the Balkans, we have an abun-dance of options for you. In general, really, just enjoy the day, and as we cannot shake hands or see each other face to face, let’s make the best connection professionally and personally.
To sum it up, my wish for everyone is for a better year and that tourism, which is not only our work, but also our passion, our life, will get back on track ‘faster than fast’.
Questions by Tine Murn and Robert Dee, founders of New Deal Europe, the only travel market platform dedicated to generating business to the Greater Balkan region of Europe. New Deal Europe Marketplace and Forum 2021 will take plaxe on 12 April 2021. More information at www.newdealeurope.com.