© Active Albania

Vjosa: Europe’s First Wild River National Park

23 March 2023

On March 13, 2023, Vjosa became the first Wild River National Park in Europe, solidifying its status as one of Albania's natural wonders. The river is home to more than 1,100 species and authentic communities, including a diverse fish fauna with high percentages of endemic species of the Balkans. With lush vegetation surrounding it, Vjosa is a prime location for adventure enthusiasts to explore and relax. 

For over a decade, environmental experts and tourism activists – including EcoAlbania, Patagonia, Riverwatch, Euronatur, and others from the Save the Blue Heart campaign – along with residents of the communities surrounding Vjosa, media, national and international artists, tour operators, and activity enthusiasts have been devoted to working toward the goal of protecting Vjosa for generations to come.

“The establishment of Vjosa as a unique National Park in Albania and Europe marks a significant milestone, elevating our country to a new level on the European tourism map and paving the way for sustainable economic and social development,” Prime Minister Edi Rama announced during the celebrations of Vjosa NP's declaration in the Municipality of Tepelena. “Currently, almost 21% of Albania's territory is designated as a protected area, and we are continuously expanding this area each year towards achieving our target of having 30% of Albania's land as a protected area by 2030."

© Adnan Beci

Scientific knowledge of Vjosa's biodiversity and ecological processes is still limited, as it is one of the least explored rivers in Europe. However, existing studies highlight the river valley's significance as a biodiversity "hot spot" in Albania, providing ideal aquatic habitats for numerous species. Vjosa is home to 13 globally threatened animal species and two plant species, as well as at least 50 animal and 24 plant species included in Albania's Red Lists. The river and its tributaries flow freely from the mountains of Greece to the Adriatic coast of Albania, creating a vast natural area with diverse habitats, ranging from narrow gorges in the upper part to wide meandering river sections in the middle course and a quasi-natural delta in the Adriatic Sea. The middle stream alone contains at least eight priority habitat types for nature conservation within the framework of the European Union.

Minister Mirela Kumbaro shared, “Today, the Albanian government has officially declared the Vjosa River and its three tributaries (Drino, Bënçë, Shushicë) as a National Park, encompassing its entire length. This declaration is the culmination of two years of intense effort from the Ministry of Tourism and Environment, the National Agency of Protected Areas, the National Agency of Territorial Planning, local and foreign workers, Patagonia, and IUCN. The team worked tirelessly, village by village, to traverse the entire stretch of the queen of rivers from Leskovik, Çarshova, and Përmet to Këlcyre and Tepelënë, Memaliaj and Fier, Vlorë and Gjirokastër, Dropull, and Libohova. This historic decision would not have been possible without the support of my colleagues. Environmental protection, biodiversity conservation, and tourism development were once unimaginable when economic aid was focused on addressing emergencies. We owe our gratitude to everyone who contributed to this achievement. This decision will be remembered as a significant milestone in Albania's environmental conservation efforts”.

© Active Albania

The Vjosa watershed provides the neighboring villages with fertile land that is suitable for agriculture and livestock activities. The abundant and diverse fish species are crucial for the livelihood of local fishermen, mainly in the lower part of the river. The lush vegetation along the river makes it an ideal destination for adventure enthusiasts seeking to explore and unwind. Along the free-flowing stretch of the river, there are several underground passages and uncharted caves waiting to be explored. In spring, the melting snow causes high water levels, creating perfect rapids for enthusiasts to discover the entire length of the river. Ecotourism in Vjosa and its tributaries is flourishing, especially in recent years, with enthusiasts enjoying activities such as climbing, rafting, canoeing, hydrospeed, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, cycling, hiking, swimming, packrafting, and wild camping, among others.

Golden Opportunity for Ecotourism

The Vjosa River, located in the heart of Albania, has the potential to become a premier destination for ecotourism worldwide. Its pristine waters, breathtaking scenery, and rich biodiversity make it a perfect setting for a memorable nature-based experience.

Ecotourism, which focuses on sustainable tourism that promotes experiencing and preserving natural environments, has gained popularity in recent years, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Travelers seek authentic experiences that enable them to connect with nature and support local conservation efforts, and the Vjosa River has the potential to offer exactly that.

© Active Albania

The Vjosa River is one of the last remaining wild rivers in Europe, with undisturbed habitats that provide shelter for a wide range of species. Visitors can observe various wildlife, including otters, eagles, and rare freshwater fish. The river offers opportunities for a variety of activities such as kayaking, climbing, rafting, wilderness camping, stand up paddle, hydrospeed, cycling, hiking, and mountain climbing, providing visitors with ways to engage with the river's natural beauty actively and immersively.

The Vjosa River boasts not only natural beauty, but also cultural monuments and traditional villages that showcase Albania's rich history and local traditions. Visitors can immerse themselves in the local culture by exploring ancient ruins, visiting local markets, and enjoying traditional cuisine. This well-rounded experience supports local communities and adds to the river's appeal as a world-class ecotourism destination.

To make the most of the Vjosa River's potential, it will be important to develop sustainable tourism infrastructure that supports conservation efforts and benefits local communities. This could include eco-friendly accommodations, green transportation, and recreational facilities with minimal environmental impact. Education and training programs for visitors and the local community can also help promote sustainable tourism practices.

Collaboration among local communities, environmental organizations, and government agencies will be crucial for the success of ecotourism in the Vjosa River region. By working together, stakeholders can ensure that tourism development aligns with conservation goals and supports local economic growth. The World Sustainable Tourism Council's GSTC criteria offer a framework for managing tourist destinations in a sustainable manner, supporting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable tourism in the Vjosa River region can provide many benefits, including income for local communities, increased awareness of the importance of conservation, and funding for conservation efforts. With careful planning and collaboration, the Vjosa River can become a model for sustainable ecotourism in Europe.

© Hamilton Shehi

The Work Starts Now

As the first wild river national park in Europe, Vjosa is a unique and valuable natural resource that requires a comprehensive management plan to ensure its long-term sustainability. The management plan should balance the preservation of the river's biodiversity and ecological functions with the sustainable use of its resources by local communities and visitors. 

The following key elements should be included in the management plan:

  • Ecological Monitoring: A regular monitoring program should be established to track the ecological health of the river, including water quality, aquatic species and habitats. This data can be used to inform management decisions and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation efforts.
  • Habitat Conservation: The unique habitats of the Vjosa River, such as wetlands and riparian areas, should be protected from development and human disturbance according to IUCN Category II standards. This may include creating buffer zones around key habitats, regulating land use activities and restoring degraded areas.
  • Sustainable Tourism: The park should be promoted as a destination for responsible ecotourism, which provides economic benefits to local communities while minimizing negative impacts on the environment. This may include the development of infrastructure and facilities that are sensitive to the natural character of the river, such as low-impact trails, observation decks and interpretive signage.
  • Community Engagement: The park management plan should include the perspectives and needs of local communities, who have traditional ties to the river and depend on its resources for their livelihoods. This may include consulting with local stakeholders, providing training and education programs, and supporting community-led conservation efforts.
  • Enforcement of Park Rules: Strict enforcement of park rules and regulations is necessary to prevent illegal activities such as pollution, poaching and unauthorized development. Park staff must be trained and equipped to enforce regulations, and penalties for violations must be clearly defined and enforced.
  • Partnerships and Collaboration: Collaboration among organizations and stakeholders, such as government agencies, NGOs and research institutions, can provide valuable expertise and resources to support the goals of the management plan. These partnerships can also help raise public awareness and support for park conservation efforts.

The management plan for the Vjosa River National Park should prioritize the preservation of its unique natural values while supporting sustainable use and enjoyment by visitors and local communities. This will require continuous monitoring, collaboration, and management according to the latest methods to ensure the long-term ecological and social sustainability of the park.

About Blerina Ago:

Entrepreneur and Tourism Consultant. Founder and CEO of activealbania.com.

Nature Conservation and Adventure Travel activist. Promoter of the “Save Osumi Canyons" movement, preventing the construction of two hydropower plants.

Pioneer of destination promotion for the Western Balkans, with proven impact on economic growth on local communities, job creation and sustainable development.

Creator of the viral campaign "Be Taken by Albania", featured as a case study in the Cambridge University Press educational curriculum "IGCSE Travel & Tourism Coursebook".

Awarded for the development of eco and rural tourism products. Spokesperson and seasoned events organizer, boosting cooperation between tourism operators and stakeholders.

Executive Board Member of the worldraftingfederation.com. Experienced advisory positions on destination management, policy making and legal advice.