When 21 AdventureWeek Western Balkans participants headed up the steep incline for Sazan Island, Auron Tare, Director of Albania’s National Coastal Agency, turned to the group and told them, “You may want to stop now and take a photo of your team. You’re the first trekkers ever allowed to visit Sazan Island.”
It’s getting more and more difficult to capture the imaginations of travelers these days – especially in the adventure tourism realm where capturing imaginations is critical to operators being able to provide travelers with “firsts,” to show them truly off-the-beaten-paths, to fascinate, to scintillate.
On Albania’s “forbidden” Sazan Island — population: zero — there are remnants of what appear to be stormed out Mussolini-signature buildings, complete with ammo canisters strewn about and sun-wrought, Cold War-era former U.S.S.R. gas masks peeking out from overgrown weeds climbing out of cracked tarmac. There are countless bunkers and rusted barbed wire that signifies both abandoned and off-limits. Amid this and the countless archaeological records un-researched, overgrown flora takes over, casting a special spell above a few sandy beaches and vistas that even the Riviera might find a bit envious.
While Albania has yet to open the island to a flow of travelers (it must design its capacity plan, deal with archaeological matters, establish strict conservation programs, etc.) – something it may actually decide against – it was emblematic of several firsts on the ATTA’s inaugural AdventureWeek in Europe. The Herculean effort taken by the Albanian National Tourism Agency made simply to allow our group to visit the island was, actually, rather stunning. Not only was the visit on the island there amazing, but how we got there also stunned the group: on a Kingston Class patrol boat with the Albanian Navy. Sure, it was for impact, but in reality, it was a statement: Albania means business and it can make things happen.
Each of the participating countries of AdventureWeek Western Balkans — Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia — signed their first tourism-related Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to allow the trans-border journey to occur. In addition to signing MoUs, Kosovo and Albania, and then Albania and Macedonia, took steps to clear the path for a streamlined border crossing. Their efforts clearly demonstrated the administrations’ commitments to responsible tourism development in the region.
The crossing from Kosovo to Albania in vehicles set a record: less than 60 seconds for 21 participants representing seven countries to cross the border. And they were greeted on the other side by Albanians dressed in traditional attire serving locally produced beverages. Days later, the group journeyed from Pogradec in Albania to St. Naum Monastery in Macedonia by bicycle. The only delay? All 21 participants – the first commercial group of its kind – wanted their passports stamped. Macedonian border guards obliged with significant understanding and smiles and posed for photos.
The more exposure the ATTA had to the region of the Western Balkans over the past two years, the more our team realized that for long-haul travelers from North America in particular, the focus of the nine-day AdventureWeek Western Balkans journey held a certain mystique and cachet for travelers. Turns out, even Western Europeans viewed the region in a similar vein. Figuratively speaking, buried deep in the bunkers from of the Communist-era Yugoslavia were untold secrets; a Cold War that raged for years and held a bounty of stories dating back thousands of years and many civilizations.
Early feedback from participants – 15 international outbound buyers and six journalists from the U.S., U.K., Sweden and Australia – was that despite some challenging logistical issues in hosting this larger-than-normal AdventureWeek group, the region delivered surprises and offered great potential. Journalists indicated serious interest in immediately writing feature stories, while most of the buyers already indicated they’d met potential partners to conduct business with and were planning immediate and further investigation. And we hardly scratched the surface. Of course, those early in will enjoy the benefits of a region just two decades out of serious conflict. It’s largely unvarnished, unscathed and un-sanitized. It’s raw, and that’s what authentic is all about.