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Sustainable tourism as an economic driver

Tourism is a significant factor in any country’s economy, and not just the popular destinations with mass appeal. The gentler form, often known as ‘ecotourism’ or ‘sustainable tourism’, can also generate economic growth in more remote places without doing too much damage to nature and the environment.

2012 is set to be a milestone in the global tourism industry. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the UN’s global tourism agency, expects more than a billion people to travel to a foreign country this year for the first time ever. These visitors will spend almost USD 1 trillion. In the industrialised and emerging countries, almost one in every 12 employed people works directly or indirectly in tourism, making tourism one of the most important economic sectors worldwide.

Holidays in Albania – an insider tip

One of the places tourists visit is Theth. They may come in small numbers – the low thousands – compared to the large centres of international tourism. For this small village in the remote mountains of northern Albania, however, they are hugely important, and more are coming every year, mainly hikers and nature lovers. And these tourists have already produced Theth’s own minor economic miracle.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, recently singled out tourism as an economic driver. ‘It is encouraging to see increasing recognition given to the contribution tourism makes to development, poverty reduction and economic growth’, said UNCTAD General Secretary Supachai Panitchpakdi at a fringe event linked to a conference in Doha. He suggested that sustainable tourism in particular, often described as ecotourism, can sow the seed for economic growth in less developed countries and regions.

That is precisely what Ismail Beka had in mind a few years ago, when he first visited Theth. Just seven families were still living in the village all year round. Following the collapse of Communism, the others had left to find work elsewhere – in the provincial capital Shkodra, in Greece, in Italy, or even further away.

Ismail Beka visited Theth on behalf of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and wanted to talk about the future. The people there told him: ‘We’re poor, we have no jobs; there are no roads or telephones, we rarely have electricity, and our houses are falling down.’ They couldn’t imagine how they were supposed to get tourists to visit this forgotten corner of the country.

Sustainable tourism as an economic factor

That was, though, exactly what Beka hoped to achieve. However, it wasn’t big hotels he wanted to build in the virtually unspoiled mountain terrain of Theth National Park, but walking trails to allow nature lovers to hike through the mountains’ natural beauty. He wanted to bring gentle, sustainable tourism to Theth.

The real meaning of the term has been the subject of debate for years. UNWTO uses ‘sustainable tourism’ to describe patterns of travel that satisfy the needs of both the tourists and the host region while at the same time protecting and improving their future prospects. Sustainable tourism should:

  • conserve and develop the natural and cultural heritage of the host region (ecological impact)
  • satisfy the expectations of the visitors
  • improve the quality of life of the resident population (social impact)
  • strengthen the economy of the region (economic impact).

As director of the project, Beka has now been supporting it for six years. The people of Theth have renovated their houses and installed guest rooms, but demand is already outstripping supply. During the summer, colourful tents are pitched on the village’s extensive meadows to accommodate the trekkers.

Ecotourism is a trend

Just two years after the project started, Theth had already received 5,000 visitors. For the small mountain village this was, in the words of the German weekly Die Zeit, ‘like an invasion’. And still more keep coming. Visitors from the USA, Israel and Europe are looking for unspoiled nature and a simple life; they yearn for a sense of authenticity. And they find it here, in the stunningly beautiful mountains of Theth National Park and the neighbouring Valbona valley, a six-hour hike away through a breathtaking, practically untouched landscape. Many former residents have now begun returning to the village from Shkodra in the summer months to renovate their houses.

The project in Theth could well be a perfect example for meeting UNWTO’s criteria for sustainable tourism. Visitors find what they’re looking for: unspoiled nature and the simple life. Their hosts earn an income from the tourism and now enjoy a better standard of living in their homeland. At the same time, they’re learning to appreciate and protect their rugged mountain setting, because it’s that, more than anything else, that attracts the tourists. A holiday in Albania? Theth can certainly be recommended!

May 2012

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