Is it safe to travel in Albania?

A lot of people told me I was brave to travel in Albania.

A lot more people told me it would be dangerous.

They worried I would be kidnapped or robbed or killed.

Overall, most people were shocked I wanted to visit this part of the world.

“Albania?” they asked, their eyes wide with concern.

But let me tell you something about those people.

None of them had ever been to Albania.

More frustrating is that I doubt most of these people could tell me anything about Albania. They’ve probably never had a conversation about the country, read a news article about it and probably couldn’t find it on a map. Yet they felt comfortable having an opinion on my decision to go there. Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when it comes to giving travel advice, it helps to be informed.

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I’m not ignorant of Albania’s reputation. The country makes more than just a cameo in investigations into organised crime. I recommend reading McMafia by British journalist Misha Glenny for a insight into the subject.

Most of the things I knew about Albania before coming here were not good. But here’s the thing: “Backpacker has amazing time travelling in Albania” does not make a good news headline. “Backpacker kidnapped in Albania, fed drugs and sold into prostitution” – now that will sell some papers. We can’t help the fact negative news is usually more prominent than positive, but we can help the extent to which we let that information influence our opinions.

While travelling in Montenegro, I met a lot of people who had come from Albania. These were the first people I had met who had actually been there.

So what did they have to say about this country famed for its mafia, drug trade and human trafficking?

Only good things.

They all had an amazing time.

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The perceptions

When people don’t have any personal experience of a country, they rely on what they’ve heard or read.

Part of the reason people think Albania is unsafe is because Albanian gangsters make such good movie characters.

For example, in the film Taken two girls are kidnapped at the start of their European holiday. They are taken by Albanians, which is something a lot of people mentioned to me when I told them where I was going. As I reminded them, in the movie the girls were kidnapped in Paris, and no one has ever felt the need to give me a safety briefing when I go to France.

A lot of countries have a reputation as being unsafe to travel in, and in some cases that’s because they are unsafe to travel in. But there are others countries where the perception, whether it be influenced by the media or pop culture, isn’t accurate.

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The reality

Albania does have one of the most powerful mafia organisations in the world. But very few of the people involved are actually in Albania. One Albanian “Godfather” engineered a sophisticated drug pipeline between Albanian and Croatian communities in Australia. The Albanian mafia is also one of the key players in the drug and prostitution industries in Germany. Albanians control about three quarter of the brothels in the United Kingdom, making about £15 million from their businesses in London’s trendy Soho district each year alone. The Albanians also launder money between Canada and the United States.

There isn’t much going on in Albania. Why? Because there’s no money here. The money eventually finds its way back to Albania. You can see it in the fancy cars and huge houses. But frankly, I’d be more concerned about Albanian drug lords in New York, where they control about 40% of the heroin trade, than in Tirana.

Of course there is still crime in Albania. I had my laptop stolen from my hostel in Tirana (although odds are the thief was a hostel guest and most of them were Australians, Americans and Canadians). But there’s crime everywhere. I had a bag stolen in Belgium, and I don’t think anyone would ever call Belgium an unsafe country. I know people who were attacked while travelling in a well-known city in Europe. Again, it was not a place I would have ever considered risky. Bike theft is a huge problem in Vancouver. My sister’s house was broken into in Brisbane.

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My experience

In the two weeks I spent travelling in Albania, I never felt unsafe. I have been more unnerved in parts of London, Vancouver and even walking through some streets in Hobart back in Tasmania.

I was travelling alone most of the time, either CouchSurfing or staying in hostels or guesthouses. On several occasions I turned up in a city without any idea where I would stay that night and it always worked out. I caught public transport without any problem. I shopped in local markets and walked around at night. I travelled just as I would in almost any other country.

Travelling in Albania is safe and more no more risky or dangerous to travel in than any other country I’ve visited.

I took the same precautions as I would when travelling in any other part of Europe. I didn’t put myself in isolating situations. I made sure someone knew where I was. I protected my valuables as best I could. Although, I usually felt more comfortable walking around with my SLR Camera than in other countries. A lot of people told me it would be unlikely it would be stolen as it would be difficult to offload as not many people here could afford it. There are very few beggars and usually only in places where there are tourists. Homeless people don’t beg because they know Albanians don’t have money to spare. Albania’s most poor are more likely to be playing dominoes in the park that sitting on the street with their hand out.

But there were times were I felt uncomfortable.

I was looked at a lot, especially at night, but this wasn’t just because I was a foreigner. It was because I was a woman walking around alone. In some parts of Albania, this is still uncommon.

My reputation and character might have been in danger, but my safety wasn’t.

I was followed in Sarande and although it was weird and uncomfortable, it wasn’t scary. An old man who said hello as I walked by (I said hello back) started walking behind me and followed me, at a distance, as I explored the town.  I lost him a couple of streets later and never saw him again. The same thing happened to two other girls I met, but both said they were never concerned. The consensus seemed to be the men were curious and didn’t quite understand how we might feel about being followed.

I got the impressions some Albanians have different ideas about boundaries. One girl I met befriended some Albanian guys through her CouchSurfing host and added one on Facebook. That guy then sent a friend request to her mum. I think that’s weird and you probably do to, but this guy didn’t. The Albanians I met have kept in contact a lot more than most people I meet travelling. Just lots of “hi, how are you” messages. I thought it was odd at first, but there’s obviously differing social norms, even when it comes to social media.

Albania

Tourists in Albania

There are a lot of tourists in Albania. I’ve met backpackers hitchhiking their way through the Balkans, a university graduate on her first big overseas trip, a retired Australian couple on their way to Greece, an Austrian family travelling with their two young children and a German couple travelling by bike and towing their young son in a carriage behind them. But not every visitor here is the intrepid, adventurous type. The busload of Vietnamese tourists I met at the Blue Eye comes to mind when I say this. There are backpacker hostels popping up all over the place as well as fancy hotels with prices the locals could never afford. The tourism industry workers I spoke to in Albania said every year has been busier than the last and judging by the amount of development on the go in places like Sarande, that’s a trend that will continue.

But despite the positive stories travelers such as myself come away with, it will take a long time for people to think of Albania as a potential holiday destination. It is unfortunate that people’s perceptions of Albania will stop many more from travelling here and discovering what a fascinating country it is and how friendly, welcoming and generous its people are.

17 comments

  1. Albanian

    Sick and tired of this “reputation” of Albania. Some British media are against Europe and its enlargement, and since Albania is applying for the EU, they tend to say many negative things against Albania just to make their point about the EU and the countries they are taking in. Add to this the fact that half of our population is Muslim. They think it’s like in Arab countries here. Albania has actually a lower crime rate than the US.

    • Megan
      Author

      I agree the reputation is unfair, but a lot of that comes from people not knowing any different. That’s why I’m writing about it – to let people know what to expect.

      • Ervin

        I find your article accurate, very good description of my country Albania.
        Of course everyone has his own opinion and perception on things, but what I have gathered from foreigners who have recently been to Albania, I found similar outcome. As the time passes by better it gets I hear.
        Thanks for your great article and hope to see you again enjoying Albanian visits

  2. bjanko

    Well to be honest(and it may sound crazy) but that reputation may keep albania safe from thousands of tourists that will destroy the natural beauty of the country. my country is a paradise when we refer to natural beauty and not everyone deserves to visit such a place. Albania is a small country and mass tourism could be a curse rather than a gift.

    • Megan
      Author

      That’s one of the reasons I went to Albania when I did. I think there will be a lot more tourists there soon and I wanted to get in before they do.

      • Joni

        LOL, good thinking!
        Just a question: Did you find Albanians to be multilingual or they just pretend to speak English/Italian/etc?

        • Megan
          Author

          A surprising number spoke good English, but that was usually younger people, say 35 and under. The next generation up knew more Italian or German and often no English at all.

      • Allan Smith

        My wife and I have been going to Albania twice a year for 23 years. We have always felt safe and never had any trouble. We have many Albanian friends and they are friendly, kind and hospitable. See Albania now before it becomes europes hottest holiday spot.

    • Gena Avramova

      You are very right, I hope your country remains calm, authentic and Albanian. Resorts in Croatia or Gran Canaria for example have become so overpopulated that it is pretty annoying and stressful there. Not to mention that they are packed with German tourists and have took on a German feel, displacing the original culture

  3. peter ripley

    went to albania for the first time this year it was fantastic people very friendly very varied scenary felt very relaxed ihope to tour on my motorcycle in early spring any way looking forward to going back have even learnt afew words of tosk

  4. Caution

    I’m glad you enjoyed Albania and found it so safe, though I would be careful of over emphasising its safety. Sadly it does have a reputation for a reason. Your experience of being followed sounds very similar to that of my girlfriend (who was travelling alone). She was, in fact, kidnapped. I won’t go into what happened as I find it hard to talk about but luckily she managed to escape. Not unscathed though.

  5. Adi

    Pershendetje te gjithave atyre që kanë shkuar dhe atyre që vetëm lexojnë!
    Falënderoj në veçanti autoren Megan për këtë përshkrim të përzemërt që i ka bere Shqiperise dhe shqiptarëve!
    Njerëz të mirë dhe të keqij ka kudo në botë, ketë e di mirë cdokush!
    Jam krenar që jam shqiptar dhe që jam banor i këtij planeti me emrin Toke!
    Mirupafshim!

  6. When I read you I feel like you want to convince people that you’re not that crazy to go on your own in such a country. You already aware that albania it is very risky to travel in especially on your own. The mafia there is the worst we ever know in that world (reckoning kidnapping, prostitution and so on) it is more that serious and perhaps you have been lucky to get back safely. I do think that traveling alone it is a great thing to do to find out itself and others but on the contrary there are any countries you had better not to go alone as albania because we never know what could happen. After if you like adrealina so well do it but please do not try to convince others that those kind of countries are safe so as to feel yourself good in your decision.

  7. X

    People only with paranoia and have problem with their knowledge can bad mouth a nation.
    The other issue is that the media misinforming and giving the apportunety to some to read the head lines and instantly making a judgment..with no hesitation. I have been working here in UK for this company for more then 15 years which I am the only non English / Albania and it is sad to hear their opinions to wards my country that they have never put a foot in.. which I have decided to move on and let all brexiters be satisfied…!

  8. Was searching about safety in Albania for my trip next week and this is exactly what I wanted to hear 😀 My boyfriend (who has been before briefly) was like ‘people get sold into prostitution and have guns and you won’t be able to get your camera out without being robbed.’ Fortunately I’m an experienced enough traveler to know that people are usually at least 30% more paranoid than they need to be about a country’s reputation! Thanks for posting – you’ve quelled all my fears and now I’m super looking forward to my trip 😀

  9. Ervin

    I’m an albanian citizens living in the states (new jersey) for two years.
    Me n my american girlfriend went to Albania beginning of last month July 7th to 17th 2017, time when the tourist season really starts.
    Safety in the big cities is very good, as it would be in Belgium, Paris or Athens.
    Something worth mentioning is that in albanian citizens there’s not such as good or bad areas cos the towns are not that big like in London or Paris where you would see asian/african/chinese neighborhoods
    People in Albania are friendly in general and at some point curious. No harm at all!

    Country’s infrastructure isn’t good enough comparing to western standards. But it’s improving. Main roads that run thru the country are fairly in good conditions very few of them with not enough lighting and signs.
    Booking a hotel room in advance is NOT necessary a must. In my experience I have just showed up at the some hotels i saw walking by and booked a room right on the spot. But keep in mind of the tourist season at the seaside towns. There you may have to book in advance due to high accomodation demands

    Public transport from town to town can be a bit confusing with no real organised schedules or advanced booking. Just show up at the city main bus station and read the name of the town written on bus windshield. That’s the bus destination. As for the timetable it depends where they go. For popular destinations they may leave every half an hour. Traveling by bus is very cheap. Just avoid late night travel cos buses don’t operate overnight.

    English is not widely spoken especially in old or middle aged peoples but you would find lots of young ones be very good at it.

    As per a woman traveling/walking alone late at night, in main cities their safety shouldn’t be an issue unless in poorly lit suburban areas where it might be some concerns, but my girlfriend doesn’t feel safer either at that time in her neighborhood here in New Jersey
    Raping or killing of foreign women is very rare, I am not aware of any incidents alike.

    So on closing note I would say Albania in general is a safe country, like many other countries in Europe. Not very infrastructurelly organized for lone travelers but it’s cheap, great history, culture and food, nice weather with amazing beaches and nature.

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