A Brief History of Tourism in Valbona
Less than 10 years ago, there were no Hotels or Guesthouses in Valbona – as there is still no store, post office, doctor, gas station or any other sign of normal “town” life beside the school (this will tell you a lot about Malësori priorities!). What there was was the centuries old tradition of hospitality, which demanded that any traveller be taken in and (for the length of time that he was on your property) treated as more deserving of your care and consideration than your own children. When you consider the remoteness and harshness of this environment – cars only became available to the general public in Albania some 20 years ago – you can imagine how crucial this rule of hospitality was to the exhausted and freezing traveller, staggering over the jagged peaks to bang on the door of an isolated farmhouse!
In 2005 when there was no means of employment in Valbona beside the traditional subsistence farming, Alfred began to turn this tradition to economic benefit for the local people by running the family farmhouse as a guesthouse. Rooms were cleared and 16 bunk beds installed in 4 rooms. People thought he was nuts. Everyone was leaving Tropoja to search for a better, more profitable life elsewhere – who would pay to come here? But there were visitors. “I saw no more than ten people my whole time here. And, not a single tourist. Tourists do pass through the region, I was told, but not so often.“ Not content with this, Alfred proceeded to build a small Hotel, which he named Rilindja, originally planned to have 4 rooms with 8 beds. How would he ever fill those!?
Today, the idea has caught on – our 26 beds are often full to capacity in July and August, and there are now 8 other Guesthouses in Valbona, Camping (although to date none of the advertised campsites actually have any dedicated facilities, so be careful!), 2 Hotels with 2 more in construction, and all together Valbona now boasts 300 beds!
Wait, wait, before you worry that the splendid isolation of Valbona has been compromised, you can consider that a similar village in Slovenia, Bohinj – also preserving traditional appearances and located within a National Park – has 6,000 beds and nearby camping for as many as 10,000. 300 beds is still a laughably small amount, and life in Valbona has still not changed all that much, nor will the visitor’s experience. It is probably worth knowing that this extends to the villagers’ economic status, with the majority of people still depending on their cows, sheep, goats and gardens for sustenance. Most people still don’t have running water in their houses, and for 60% of the people their only income is the public assistance offered by the local government which is less than 25 dollars per month.
This is why I will end this description with an appeal: Please consider the potential impact of your visit. Remember that the school is the only public building in Valbona? Mostly people here struggle to educate their children, most of whom would quite like to stay here. The people of Valbona are inextricably tied to their land with a deep and fierce love and they don’t want to leave it. Anything you spend while you are here will be significant contribution to our ability to better the lives and very existence of the future generations of Valbona. While it is still possible to camp anywhere in Valbona, if you can afford the 5€ a night for camping on someone’s land, please do it. If someone invites you into their house for coffee (which they will!), it is customary to give 200 lek or so to the children of the house – hand it to them directly! They will try to refuse, being politely brought up children, but you can refuse to take it back (this usually involves a lot of laughing). Mostly people here are still excited to have visitors simply for the interest they provide, but if you find you enjoy Valbona as much as we do it may make you happy to realize that you can contribute so easily to a vast improvement in the well being of the place. Thank you so much for your help.