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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.