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Sunday, 18 August, 2002, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Albania tries image makeover
Apartment housing in Tirana
Albania suffers from 40% unemployment

A few years ago when Albania suggested it could benefit from the global boom in eco-tourism, many scoffed.

They were right to. Albania's tourism industry, like its image, has changed little in the last few years.


The image of Albania, especially in western Europe, is really distorted by some media stereotypes

Edi Rama,
Tirana mayor

Still, talk to the Vice Minister for Tourism, Artan Lame, and he is optimistic more people can be attracted.

"We already this year have Macedonians, and Kosovar Albanians on our coast," he told me in his office.

We wandered over to a map of Albania. "So where do you recommend to go?" I asked.

"In the south it is nice. Beautiful. We also have a lot of roads," he replied.

Underinvestment

A strange point to make perhaps. But roads, or rather infrastructure, is the issue.

Albania is suffering from years of underinvestment. The southern coastline rivals neighbouring Greece for beauty, but not facilities.

In the capital, Tirana, a major image-changing project is underway. The Mayor, Edi Rama, showed me round.

The former artist has turned his city into a giant canvas. Where once communist grey dominated, now the buildings are orange, yellow, red and green. Bright colours for a bright new image.

"The image of Albania, especially in western Europe, is really distorted by some media stereotypes," he told me.

"Albania is far from being perfect, and Albanian politicians are far from being the right persons for their people, but Albanians are hospitable, friendly people."

Poverty

The majority are also poor. Albanian is currently ranked the third poorest country in Europe behind Moldova and Romania. More than 40% of Albanians are unemployed.

Albania is also vilified in the international media as a centre for trafficking of drugs and people. And as a centre for corruption.


Corruption in Albania has become prevalent in the last seven years

Eddie Machen,
British-born businessman
A new image is desperately needed. The country is in the process of starting the first stage of negotiations towards European Union membership. It also wants to join Nato.

Albania has set itself a date of 2005 for membership. The European Commission's representative in Tirana, Gavin Evans, says Albania will not be joining the EU in the near future.

"I think that's unrealistic. I think it's possible to contemplate 2010, perhaps even later than that."

And he suggested 2020 might be closer the mark.

"Albania needs to tackle some major issues. First of all there is the fight against corruption. There is a need to reform the police force and the judiciary, and to strengthen the borders."

Corruption

It is a view those in the business world agree with. British-born Eddie Machen moved out to Tirana seven years ago.

He says he loves the country and the people. But there has been little change as far as running a business is concerned. Bribery, corruption, all play a part in business life in Albania.

Tirana mayor Edi Rama
Edi Rama: Image conscious

"Corruption in Albania has become prevalent in the last seven years. In fact it really has become much worse than it was before."

Perhaps the best sign of how far Albania has to go is the impressive tower blocks that now dominate the Tirana skyline.

Clean and modern to look at, yes. But most believe many are built simply as a way of laundering the profits made by Albania's criminals.

As for Mayor Rama, he is a man who understands that image is important. And he hints that Albania's politicians might be holding back the country.

"I don't believe that Albania's politicians are good at working for the image of Albania."

Perhaps Albania can reverse the trends of the last decade. Certainly investment is growing. But the effects are rarely felt by ordinary people.

And in the meantime they are left waiting for the mayor's paintbrush to reach them.

See also:

29 Jun 02 | Europe
27 Jun 02 | Europe
04 May 00 | Europe
22 Oct 01 | Europe
19 Oct 01 | Americas
06 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
03 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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