More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 28

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

The coastal plain was ringed to north, east and south by dramatic mountain ranges rising to 2700 metres and harbouring vast blue lakes. The Ministry of Tourism identified so-called ‘Priority Tourism Zones’ for early development: principally around Pogradec on the indisputably beautiful Lake Ohrid, and on the coast near to Saranda and Durres.

Here, according to the Minister, “all other economic activities shall be subordinated to tourism.”

There were six designated National Parks where flora and fauna, including brown bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar, were to be protected.” Hotels and winter sports facilities were to be constructed in the mountains. Dance, music and local handicrafts would be developed as attractions in themselves.

Back in 1993, foreign investors were already being encouraged to participate in the ten-year plan with tax-free breaks, tax relief and low land rentals. These were all noble and ambitious ideals. The problem with Albania was that the country was still firmly locked in its own troubled past.

Spaho did admit that the development of the tourist industry would be dependent on development of infrastructure like the airport and the country’s dilapidated and skeletal road system. Under the Hoxha regime, private cars had been banned and the roads were now crumbling under an explosion of traffic.

I visited Albania throughout the 1990s and then returned in 2005 to accompany American tourists to Durres, Tirana and the Roman ruins at Butrint, near to Sarande. With the exception of a vastly improved road between Durres and Tirana, there was little to see in the way of infrastructure development, apart from mushrooming petrol stations. To visitors from the US, the country remained incredibly primitive.

Then, as now, driving was a seriously dangerous undertaking. It was bad enough and crazy enough on the potholed roads during the day, but at night it became a veritable nightmare as unlit horse-drawn carts, bolting cattle, wandering goats and donkeys and pedestrians, all with no apparent road sense, seemingly came from every direction.