As Regent Holidays marks 50 years of selling trips to Albania, tour guide Ilia Grillo talks to Yolanda Zappaterra about a changing country
Q. What was it like when you started leading tours?
A. Travellers enjoyed visiting Albania as it was different from their own countries. They liked talking to people and visiting schools and factories, and experiencing what life was like.
They would also have felt like they were being surveyed by secret police as well as by the guides. We felt privileged to be among foreigners. We’d learnt English from books without being able to practise, so it was a great opportunity.
We could see the tourists were kind, friendly and interested in our country, but couldn’t understand why they would take pictures of horses, donkeys and carts as the main means of transport!
Q. Many people still have a grim vision of Albania and its Cold War rules, for example its ban on beards and flares, even for visitors. What is modern Albania like for travellers?
A. In those days you could only visit in a group. Nowadays people can easily travel on their own or with family, and visit every corner of Albania without restrictions.
There are also better roads, plus modern hotels and lots of good restaurants – tourism is a major industry. Albania did have tolerance issues around non-white and LGBTQ+ travellers.
Happily that’s behind us and we hope no visitor would feel uncomfortable – people are generally friendly and welcoming.
Q. What are some essential experiences and attractions?
A. We have three Unesco World Heritage Sites – Berat, Gjirokastër and Butrint. For scenery I recommend the Albanian Alps and our national parks, especially Theth and the Valbona Valley, as well as the lagoons at Karavasta where you can see rare pelicans and other wildlife.
For culture and history, there are the towns of Korç, Shkodër and Përmet. The beaches of the Albanian Riviera are also beautiful.
Q. Are there any new attractions or experiences this year?
A. The road to Theth has been paved so visitors can easily get to the heart of the Albanian Alps. The Vjosa, the last wild river left in Europe, was recently declared a national park and is a wonderful place to visit.
Q. What do agents need to know to sell Albania?
A. We realise Albania suffered from image issues, but we’d encourage agents to experience the country themselves to see this is no longer the case. Albania is one of Europe’s safest countries, according to EU statistics.
It is easy to reach, with about five daily flights from the UK, and affordable. Whether you’re a culture fanatic, wildlife lover, beach junkie, foodie or outdoor adventurer, there’s something for everyone.