A lake in Kukes, Albania 390 (R).
(photo credit: Arben Celi/Reuters)
Albania and Serbia may not be at the top of Israelis’ lists of vacation
destinations, but the two historical adversaries in the Balkans journeyed to Tel
Aviv this week to entice Israelis to think different for their next
Albanian tour operator Shkelgim “Jimmy” Lama was among the
contingent manning the Albanian booth at the Tel Aviv International
Mediterranean Tourism Fair (TIMT), below a banner that read: “Albania – a new
Lama said the Albanian delegation came to Israel
this year because the country is emerging as a tourist destination after more
than four decades of being cut off from the outside world during the reign of
Marxist dictator Enver Hoxha, who cultivated a bizarre cult of personality and
helped make Albania Europe’s poorest and most-isolated country.
country has come a long way since it was a punch-line for jokes a little over a
decade ago. In the 1997 black comedy Wag the Dog the US constructs a fake TV war
with Albania in order to draw attention away from the incumbent president’s sex
scandal, the joke being that the country is so unknown to most Americans that
the ruse should work.
Also, in Robert Kaplan’s 1994 historical travelogue
book Balkan Ghosts he described being in the Albanian port city of Durres in
1990 and watching a crowd gather around a display of safety razors as “hope and
wonder registered in their eyes.”
Another running joke is the more than
750,000 concrete bunkers built during Hoxha’s regime, to stave off an “invasion
by the West,” which in true North Korean fashion, the people of Albania were
told was imminent. Today, campaigns are underway to convert the bunkers into
hotel rooms, bars, and restaurants.
Lama said Israelis shouldn’t worry
that the country is majority Muslim, saying it is a predominantly secular
country with a unique Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim
While there are still no direct flights from Tel Aviv to Tirana
(or anywhere else in Albania for that matter), Lama said it is only a quick one
hour flight from Athens to the resorts on the Albania coastline.
of Israel, it appears Albania is no longer off the tourist radar. It attracted
over 3 million visitors in 2011, most of whom visited the 450 kilometers of
beaches on the “Albanian Riviera” on the Adriatic Sea coast as well as the
country’s three UNESCO world heritage sites. That same year it was also named
No. 1 on Lonely Planet’s list of the Top 10 countries to visit in
Neighboring Serbia also has a great deal to offer Israelis
visitors, said Dejan Veselinov, Director of the Tourist Organization of
Veselinov’s expertise is the Serbian capital, the largest city
in all of the former Yugoslavia, which has repaired most of the damage suffered
in the NATO bombing campaign of 1999.
Veselinov hyped the city as a
top-notch “urban vacation” destination, with world-class nightlife, great
restaurants, and festivals year-round. When prodded, he also confirmed the
city’s reputation for having a disproportionately large population of beautiful
He also spoke of the twice-weekly direct flights to Belgrade from
Tel Aviv, which he said are perfectly-timed on Wednesdays and Sundays for
Israelis looking to make it a very long weekend in Serbia.
Ahead of the
expo on Tuesday, Veselinov managed to take a trip to Jerusalem, where he visited
sites holy to Christendom, and strolled through the city that is holy to three
He said he felt moved by the city’s mix of history, culture,
and conflict, saying “it reminds me of the Balkans.”
The IMTM expo is
being held this week on Tuesday and Wednesday for the 18th year in a row. It
features dozens of booths promoting domestic tourism in Israel as well as
destinations around the globe.