Take a walk down through the Hotel Liro in Albania on a sunny morning – passing the breakfast terrace, then stepping onto the staircase, which clings doggedly to the sheer cliff-face, all the way to the sea – and you will find yourself marvelling, again, at the glory of the view.
It won’t just be the plunge pool, with the resort’s name spelled out on its bottom in neat yellow tiles; nor the noise of fellow holidaymakers splashing in the shallows alongside. It will be the gentle surface of the water beyond, and the way the Karaburun Peninsula pulls hard across the middle distance, creating the U-shaped Bay of Vlore as it interrupts the horizon, a line of hilly green against the blue of the waves. Having absorbed all this, you may then marvel further that there are so few British guests admiring the scene with you.
There may be some, of course: intrepid wanderers in on a secret. And perhaps, in the coming months, there will be more of them. Certainly, the country which offers this fine setting, just below the seafront city of Vlore, is quietly entering the holiday conversation.
Long the forgotten outpost of the Mediterranean, Albania is seeing an increase in interest from potential visitors who want somewhere “new” after two years of travel stasis, or who crave a great value alternative to the likes of booked-up Greece and Italy but don’t want to fly too far as pandemic uncertainty lingers. Dotting the Balkan map directly below Montenegro and Croatia, Albania fits this bill. Since the turn of the year, Skyscanner has observed a 48 per cent leap in bookings for flights from the UK to the capital Tirana, compared with 2019. That secret is emerging.
It is easy to understand why this might be the case at the Hotel Liro, which sits just outside the waterfront city of Vlore, roughly at the point where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. This is just one lovely section of an Albanian coastline that stretches out to 296 miles, and takes even more glorious shape further south. Saranda is the sort of picturesque town you expect to find on the other side of the close-at-hand Greek border, while the lovely village of Ksamil underlines the proximity of the next-door neighbour, its beach hotels gazing at Corfu, which shimmers five miles to the west. However, the beauty of both is eclipsed by the Llogara Pass, which carries you across the Ceraunian Mountains, dipping sharply upwards and down some 25 miles to the south of Vlore, the zig-zag road offering epic views of the Ionian, and the sand of Palasa Beach, far beneath.
It is also easy to understand why Albania does not have a much higher profile. Its image is still largely defined by its turbulent 20th century. It was the final Eastern Bloc domino to fall in central Europe, only dispensing with communism as its political creed in 1992, having endured the leadership of dictator Enver Hoxha from 1946 all the way to his death in 1985. General perception sees Albania as a country mired in an unpalatable yesterday; bent out of shape by its history, and hard to reach even if you have the appetite to do so.
The latter, at least, is no longer a factor. Where, as recently as 2017, the only direct option for UK travellers was a British Airways service from Heathrow to Tirana, the past four years have given birth to a spate of alternatives. National carrier Air Albania launched a Tirana-Stansted route in 2020, two years after its low-cost rival Albawings had blazed an identical trail. Wizz Air began operations from Luton to Tirana in 2018, and easyJet was not prepared to let the pandemic prevent it unveiling a Gatwick-Tirana link in July 2020.
Admittedly, this hasn’t resolved the issue that you can only really fly to the capital, a city that – neither at Albania’s exact heart, nor on the coast – is more than a little inconvenient for tourists dreaming of beaches, especially those in the south. But here, too, things are changing. Kukes International Airport opened last April, paid for by significant investment from the United Arab Emirates. Way out east, near the Kosovan border, it, as yet, offers very few flights and none of them are useful to sun-seekers. Vlore Airport – under construction by a Turkish-Kosovan consortium since last March – will be different. It is due for completion next year, and (having seen off a rival project in Saranda, which was shelved in October) will become the main point of arrival in the lower half of the country.
This development is controversial. The runway will be dug into the Vjose-Narta Delta, a protected area rich in birdlife, where the Narta Lagoon kisses the Adriatic. That obvious environmental concerns about the impact of the airport have been overridden says much about Albania’s determination to monetise its less-seen south. Its National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism Development, published in 2019, puts this intent in writing. “There is no doubt that tourism is becoming the keyword of our country’s national, social and economic development,” the opening statement by Blendi Klosi, the minister of tourism and environment, reads. There is bold talk of a 26 per cent boost to GDP; of widespread job creation; and of “a clear vision to turn Albania into a destination of recognised value”.
This ambition has yet to translate to the British package market. None of the obvious fly-and-flop giants – Tui, Thomas Cook, Jet2, On The Beach – as yet sell seaside breaks to Albania. Such getaways are possible (see below) but, for now, remain relatively niche.
There is good reason for this. While you can find boutique retreats and luxury properties (the Hotel Liro being a prime example), much of Albania’s current portfolio of beach accommodation is short of the highest standard. Durres is the issue in microcosm. The second city, 25 miles west of Tirana, has the main phalanx of seafront resorts. But the majority of them are 1990s relics, thrown up in the first flushes of the post-communist era. For the most part, they are comfy enough, and the beach in front of them is broad and soft. But if Albania wishes to compete with Greece and Croatia, it will need to do better.
Of course, many of the tourists (British or otherwise) who have already discovered the country don’t treat sunbathing as a priority. They are culture-minded travellers, intrigued by a story that arcs back almost 3,000 years. Albania’s Ottoman period is particularly striking: in Berat, almost at the heart of the nation, where 18th-century houses and mosques balance on a steep hillside above the River Osum, to southerly Gjirokaster, which plays a similar World Heritage card, in the Gjere mountains.
Then there are the earlier empires. Albania came under the influence of both ancient Rome and Greece. Southerly Butrint (the former Buthrotum) and Apollonia (near westerly Fier) tell this old tale in temples, statues and pillars, while Durres deflects some of its three-star stodginess in a AD 200 amphitheatre of enduring majesty.
The narrative winds back further too, into the mists of 500 BC, when the region was Illyria. The ingenuity of this pre-Roman civilisation is still visible in the surviving walls of Lissos (modern-day Lezhe, in the far north, near the Montenegrin border), where diagonal cuts into the stone were designed to help the buildings to withstand earthquakes.
Even the capital adds a chapter or two to this splendid yarn. Tirana is largely an Ottoman creation, founded in 1614. But it provides an impressive overview in the enormous National History Museum, plus restaurants and bars galore in the Blloku district which, off-limits to ordinary citizens in Hoxha’s time, has been reclaimed and reborn since 1992.
“We are seeing a rise in interest across the Balkans, with Albania being no exception,” says Andrea Godfrey, an Albania expert at regional specialists Regent Holidays. “What we are noticing is that an increasing number of people are looking for a private driver and guide to help them cover the country in depth, taking in the likes of Butrint, the coast road and the Llogara Pass. Most of our clients are looking to discover all corners of Albania, but with a couple of days’ R&R included, for which we always suggest Ksamil.”
Regent’s affinity with Albania goes further than most travel companies. This year marks a precise half-century since it began operations in the country, a milestone which will be saluted via a one-off 50th anniversary escorted tour (see below left). Inevitably, this five-day itinerary will look to the most feted historic sites. However, it is unlikely that, in another 50 – or even 20 – years’ time, Albania will still be relying on its past for its tourism present.
Albania holidays for everyone
Regent Holidays’ (0207 666 1244; regent-holidays.co.uk) 50th Anniversary Tour of Albania will be a potted five-day affair – scheduled for May 19-23 – that will call on Tirana, Gjirokaster, Butrint, Ksamil and Berat. From £1,050pp, including flights.
If you want a more detailed glimpse of Albania, the nine-day Origins of Illyria tour offered by Steppes Travel (01285 880980; steppestravel.com) is an excellent choice. A long-standing part of the company’s brochure, led by historian Carolyn Perry, the trip dissects the country from north to south, halting in Tirana, Durres, Berat, Vlore, Saranda and Gjirokaster. This year’s edition will start on June 3, from £1,995pp; flights extra.
While Albania’s beaches are not yet package staples, it isn’t impossible to spend an easy week on the sand. Greece specialist Sunvil (020 8758 4758; sunvil.co.uk) offers holidays to Saranda, where guests fly to Corfu, then hop over to Albania by ferry. A week at the three-star Seaside Saranda starts at £1,028pp (with flights from Manchester).
Another route to this less-appreciated stretch of seafront is the Albania and Macedonia Uncovered trip offered by Mercury Holidays (0333 321 3144; mercuryholidays.co.uk). As its name suggests, this 11-day escorted tour also takes in neighbouring North Macedonia (notably the little city of Ohrid, which sits gorgeously on the lake of the same name). It also visits Tirana, Vlore (for Apollonia) and Durres – checking into the latter for four nights by the beach. From £1,108pp, with flights. Next departure is April 8-18.
With a wealth of attractions to complement the bars of Blloku (Bunk’art is a modern art gallery in a former nuclear shelter; bunkart.al), Tirana can certainly sustain a mini-break. A four-night stay at the five-star Hotel Rogner, flying from Heathrow on May 18, costs from £384pp, with British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays).
British citizens don’t need a visa to visit Albania, and can enter via full vaccination, proof of recovery from Covid in the last six months – or a negative test result (PCR or antigen)