Albania, Serbia promote sites at major TA tourism expo

Two historical adversaries in the Balkans journey to TA to entice Israelis to think different for their next trip.

A lake in Kukes, Albania 390 (R) (photo credit: Arben Celi/Reuters)
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 vacation.
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 Mediterranean love.”
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.
The 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 heritage.
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.
Outside 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 2011.
Neighboring Serbia also has a great deal to offer Israelis visitors, said Dejan Veselinov, Director of the Tourist Organization of Belgrade.
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 women.
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 religions.
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.