The mallard is one of the bird species that nests in the national park. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the species is "near endangered" globally. Photo: Embassy of Sweden in Tirana, Albania.


Fight for tourists and birds off the coast of Albania

In the middle of a national park in Albania, the construction of a huge tourist complex has been proposed. However, the proposal has not been well received by everyone in the country. Several environmental organizations have protested against the enormous impact such a construction would have on the environment, wildlife and local residents.

Albania is moving towards EU negotiations, and many levels of society are now preparing for future EU accession. Market economy development is one of these preparations. In Albania, the expansion of tourism is in focus when it comes to economic development, but environmental policy is also one of the policy areas where improvements must be made in order to live up to EU standards. In a situation where many political issues compete for importance, it is possible that a certain contradiction arises between the different priorities.

In the Divjaka National Park, on the Albanian coast towards the Adriatic Sea, such a contradiction has arisen. Mabetex, a Swiss-Kosovar construction company, has proposed the construction of a huge hotel complex in the middle of the national park, despite the fact that it would violate several international conventions and destroy biodiversity. Divjaka's wetland is important for many wintering birds, and is one of the few places in Europe with nesting pelicans. But it is not only the choice between economic development and the preservation of the environment that is at the forefront. What has characterized the conflict is the hidden way in which the political process has taken place.

The whole story began in 2016, when Mabetex in a TV program presents the idea of ​​a large tourist complex in the national park. The following year, in the spring of 2017, the authorities will hold a public meeting to discuss the proposal. But already at an early stage, some doubts were noticed in the authorities' behavior. One of those who opposed the proposal is Taulant Bino, biologist and chairman of the Albanian Ornithological Society, and he is critical of how the authorities have handled the process.

- Invitation was made at short notice. They are trying to dodge the process. After that, another meeting was arranged with various organizations, but they (Mabetex and the authorities) were unable to answer many of our questions, says Bino.

In the spring of 2017, several environmental organizations published an open letter. It declared in what way an exploitation of the park violates both national laws and international conventions, such as the Berne Convention.

- Although many organizations, including international ones, opposed the proposal, the opposition did not get much attention, says Taulant Bino, at the same time as he emphasizes that without the opposition it could have looked different today.

However, the very problem with the proposal is not just legal, or a conflict between civil society and the state. One of the problems that arose during the public hearings is the difference between the interests of the local population and the attitude of the environmental organizations.

- The local population is most positive about Mabetex's proposal. It is a large investment that provides many jobs and they do not see the national park as income-generating, says Taulant Bino.

Opponents, on the other hand, consider it doubtful whether Mabetex's proposal is economically viable. Mihallaq Qirjo, deputy director of the Regional Environmental Center (REC) in Albania, is also critical of a hotel complex in the middle of the national park and believes that there is a difference between short-term and long-term economic development.

- Such projects do not usually help the local population. They may get jobs, but the stakes are high, says Qirjo, referring to similar buildings in Albania that are now abandoned.

It is clear that short-term economic issues weigh heavily. Taulant Bino still wants to emphasize that the organizations that are against the construction are not against economic development, but just not in the national park. At the same time, it is a sensitive issue because a large proportion of the local population, who are largely very poor, are positive about more tourists in the area. However, the local business industry is concerned about future increased competition.

What happens to the proposal now is highly unclear, according to both Taulant Bino and Mihallaq Qirjo. Although the construction would violate several laws and conventions, it is possible that it will still be implemented. What this story shows, however, is that Albania is facing very difficult issues in terms of both development and rapprochement with the EU. It is also clear that Albanian policy and public administration still largely lack transparency. All these problems become visible in the proposal for a 3,342-hectare tourist complex that was presented just over a year ago, and the process that followed.

Although the environmental organizations that offered resistance can not yet declare victory, it is noticeable that Albania's civil society is growing in strength and at least means an obstacle to decisions that are harmful to the environment.

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