Photo by Hektor Pustina/Associated Press
Photo by Hektor Pustin/Associated Press
Visitors to Gjirokastra, Albania, can take in the whole city from the 13th-century hilltop fortress.
Residents of the UNESCO-protected city of Gjirokastra are calling for government help to keep their businesses afloat as pandemic pains linger.
Seeing city streets in 2019 flooded by tourists enjoying its beauty was a dream come true for residents of Gjirokastra, a city in southern Albania recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Ottoman-period architecture.
It ended precipitously when the world locked down.
Called “the city of stone” due to its turreted two-story homes dating back to the 17th century, Gjirokastra and a second Albanian town, Berat, were inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage site in 2005 as “rare examples of an architectural character typical of the Ottoman period.”
With few industries left in the city, the government concentrated on renovating its historic homes and streets to gear up tourism.
Turreted homes were turned into small shops, coffee bars, or restaurants, and there was a fourfold increase of visitors between 2015 and 2019, most of them coming from Italy, Poland, France, and Spain, with smaller numbers coming from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Israel.
Following renovation of the city’s center, locals turned their 200- to 300-year-old houses with wooden facades and stone-slab roofs into guest lodging. The 700 tourist beds in the city center could hardly accommodate the 120,000 visitors to Gjirokastra the year before the coronavirus pandemic.
Hysen Kodra was among the locals who joined the rush to provide hospitality. Since the pandemic a year ago, that kind of activity has returned to the realm of wishful thinking.
“The pandemic cut [tourism] abruptly, as if with a knife,” says Kodra, whose 13-room guesthouse on top of a hill stands empty. “Until 2019 we were so good, with more and more visitors every day, and in 2020 all the booked rooms were canceled.”
Visitors arrived to explore Gjirokastra’s 13th-century fortress on the city’s hilltop and the radial-shaped, 17th-century Old Bazaar, where tourists walk the cobblestone streets to taste dishes like pasha qofte (meatballs) or oshaf (dried figs with sheep’s milk), or shop for handicrafts, curtains, carpets, traditional folk costumes, and the like.
There’s also the ethnographic museum set in the former home of the late communist dictator Enver Hoxha and a newly renovated museum devoted to Nobel literature laureate Ismail Kadare.
Tourism in Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, brought about 9 percent of GDP in 2019, and the government had hoped to raise that to 10 percent this year.
Kodra’s guesthouse overlooks Gjirokastra, which has a full-time population of 30,000, right at the place where a monument to Hoxha was placed after his death but removed in 1991 after the fall of the communist regime.
For a few years after Hoxha’s death in 1985, Kodra’s family was moved away to leave space for the monument. After a student protest toppled the communist regime in 1990, the family got its property back. Still, some locals struggle to make ends meet as Gjirokastra’s economy sputters.
Manjola Bici, who runs a small shop in the Old Bazaar selling teas and local herbs, said there has been a 60 percent drop in visitors, and most of those who still come are Albanians who usually do not spend the night. Despite renewed efforts to promote the town online, revenue has drastically fallen. Many shops stay closed.
Bici and her neighbors have tried to change the variety of items they sell or lower their prices to attract domestic consumers and have called on the government to cut business taxes to help them. She hopes vaccinations will help stop the pandemic and bring tourists back.
“You can see for yourself you are the only tourists, customers today,” she said showing the empty street to the journalists.
“I don’t think we would survive for long like this unless the government cuts all taxes, say, for a year,” adds Kodra. “We are not sure if bookings for April-May will come.”
But Loena Bakuli in charge of tourism projects at the municipality is confident of the future.
“The pandemic will go away one day soon and tourists will come back and see a different, more beautiful town,” she said.
>> Next: Can I Travel Once I’m Vaccinated?
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