Albania has a rich and diverse cultural heritage offer whose potential is only just beginning to be realized through tourism and economic development initiatives, including the Integrated Rural Development Program to revitalize 100 villages across the country. At the center of Albania’s culture strategy sits newly-appointed minister Elva Margariti, who speaks here about the major cultural tourism attractions Albania offers and the significance of foreign expertise in improving cultural heritage management and preservation in the context of Albania’s European Union (EU) accession ambitions
What are the Ministry of Culture’s main competencies and your major goals to be achieved as minister?
Culture can become one of Albania’s biggest industries. Cultural heritage is one of our largest assets and we haven’t yet explored all of it, nor worked to rehabilitate or promote it fully. It is important to promote our culture worldwide because this area has the potential to become one of the pillars of Albania’s economy. The youth in Albania today are in danger of losing their identity amidst everyone’s desire to be a global citizen. Promoting our unique Albanian identity and characteristics can be a potential motor for further developing economic and tourism activities. We have a lot to show the world, but first we have a lot to discover about ourselves. This is one of our ministry’s more important milestones.
A lot of work has been done to date on cultural heritage, and we have many foreign partners supporting us in the reconstruction of churches, mosques and archaeological sites. Many ambassadors are talking of our strength in archaeological sites. Our UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint remains unexplored and is in real need of management. We are working on the management plan, which can serve as a pilot to be replicated in our other sites. Collaboration with foreign partners can be developed further with our universities, to provide opportunities for our students to learn more about our sites and their stories, but also to inspire them to go further in forging professional careers in this area. We currently lack professional restorers and archeologists to work on these sites.
So to manage our cultural heritage is one of our main goals. It can also bring larger tourist numbers and create jobs in positions that will result in us providing better services to the tourists. With so many places still undiscovered, there is still work to do to bring more tourists to discover them. Culture and tourism are interrelated and cannot be separated; we have to look at both sectors together. We are such a small country that in one week you can go from the south to the north of Albania. From archeological sites you can go to rural areas and reach the sea in less than one hour. This fantastic natural diversity can definitely bring more economic opportunities through tourism.
If you were to describe being Albanian, what would you say about this ancient culture that is part of the European family?
Being Albanian means being friendly, curious and above all, hospitable. We have this connection of ancient culture with Ottoman influences, whilst feeling Mediterranean and European. Our young people speak fluent English, Italian and German. They have a need to feel European. Cultures have stayed in Albania and mixed with those that have arrived, a nice peculiarity of our country. Several religions have coexisted here in harmony – perhaps more than anywhere else – which has contributed to our friendliness and hospitality. During the Second World War we saved a huge number of Jews that had no other place to go. I think we should show more how Albania has historically promoted peaceful coexistence.
What actions is the Ministry of Culture taking to help lay the groundwork for EU membership?
We are preparing to implement new laws on cultural heritage preservation and management to follow EU guidelines, with expert assistance and the support of foreign partners. By June, I expect us to have finished all the legal processes for the new laws.
How important is Germany as a foreign partner for Albania?
Germany is really important for us. It is always supportive because I think it senses a good energy from the young changemakers in Albania, many of whom studied abroad – including in Germany – and have now returned with European know-how to take the country further. We look to Germany as a good example of diplomacy and management of cultural industries.
How does culture fit into the growing inflow of tourism from Europe?
We have strong collaboration with the tourism ministry, holding a lot of activities together. This is necessary to promote our culture to visitors. Each of our ministries gives a hand to the other.
Many foreigners live and work in Albania for short periods of time, or come looking for business opportunities. For them, we now offer many hotels in Tirana and elsewhere. In many of our cities, there are traditional houses that have become hotels, in contrast to the metropolitan feel of Tirana.
Gastronomy is one of our best-known characteristics. People come here curious as to how Tirana has developed so quickly. They often come back for the food. A lot of traditional cuisine is being remade in a modern, European way. Albanian chefs work in restaurants like Noma. We also know how to express our hospitality through the act of dining. It is an important connection between people.
That said, the majority of foreign tourists to Albania visit for cultural heritage sites, such as cities like Berat and Girokaster. We also have many small rural villages in which it seems as if history has stopped. We are working with the Ministry of Tourism to promote cultural tourism in these villages, as well as expanding the country’s number of museums and tour guides, not only in cultural heritage and archeological sites but also in museums.
What exactly is the 100 Villages project and how are you involved?
The Integrated Rural Development Program, to give it its full title, is the result of the collaboration of four ministries: the Ministries of Culture; Infrastructure and Energy; Tourism and Environment; and Agriculture and Rural Development. It answers several needs. One is making use of the huge socioeconomic development opportunities held by the rural village areas of Albania, which are as yet undiscovered. There is also a need for more agricultural projects, and some of the villages are surrounded by wonderful nature that is perfect for ecotourism. There is a huge difference in topography of the rural areas from north to south Albania, which you can feel after one hour of travelling by car.
Taking all of this into account, this program wants to provide opportunities for renaissance in the villages. The last years have seen an urban renaissance in Albania; we are calling this a rural renaissance. It will bring opportunities for better infrastructure, particularly related to roads and village squares, as well as diversifying economic activities, generating more social capital, and creating jobs for young people in their own villages, as well as for craftspeople. Traditional craftsmanship provides a big opportunity for economic growth yet is an endangered aspect of Albania’s cultural heritage. If we act now, we can save it from being lost to globalization. With the Ministry of Tourism, we are also working to better promote craftsmanship.
How is Tirana geared towards facilitating engagement of its citizens in cultural activities?
Cultural activities like theatre, opera, exhibitions and street festivals attract many young people to collaborate. We have a list of all cultural projects we are supporting for 2019. Most are geared towards young artists who bring new ideas. The music scene is also involving young artists. Tirana’s public spaces are always full of activities, and we collaborate with municipalities to bring more activities to the public spaces that are bring revitalized as part of the rural renaissance.
What are some of the largest misconceptions about Albania that still exist today?
This is not just related to Albania; you can find positive and negative impressions of every country. Maybe because we are so small and diverse as a country, all our traits are highlighted in both positive and negative ways. But Albanians have shown that hard work leads to success in all sorts of cultural spheres. We do not see limits. Our people are full of energy and never afraid to show our pride and capacities. So I am not afraid of misconceptions.
Do you have any final messages around Albanian culture to give to a German audience?
For sure, we still have a lot to discover about Albania. We appreciate when foreigners come and explore Albania, and gives us a wake-up call about how rich our everyday culture and way of life is. We benefit much from this dialogue.