Feature 12 Sep 14
One man’s passion for rafting has spawned a tourist industry in one the most beautiful but remote parts of Albania.
|The canyon of Langarica | Photo by : Arben Llapashtica|
Like many children of his generation in the small town of Corovoda in the mid-Eighties, Zamir Spathara spent much of his time floating down the Osumi river canyons on tubes of tractor tires.
“Whenever I went streaming down the rapids, my heart would stop and I couldn’t believe something so beautiful existed in Albania,” Spathara recalls.
“I made a promise to myself to make this place famous across the world, however unbelievable that sounded to my friends at that time,” he adds.
Under the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, Albania was one of the most isolated countries in the world, comparable to today’s North Korea.
However, since Communism collapsed in 1991, tourists have slowly but steadily started to flow in, and the Osumi River canyons are now one of the most popular destinations in the country.
The canyon is a 13-kilometre-long, class-two rapid, with a unique ecosystem of Mediterranean bush, made of heath and briar.
The canyon has a width of four to 35 meters and a height of up to 70 metres, with frequent waterfalls and caves carved by the erosion of the rock.
Tour operators in the region of Berat say over 3,000 tourists took part in rafting expeditions in 2013 and the number is expected to be much higher this year.
Starting out was not easy for Spathara. After Communism collapsed he migrated to Italy where he obtained a certificate as an instructor and guide in an international rafting centre.
With equipment donated by Italian friends he returned to Albania 15-years-ago and started to practice this sport, first individually and then professionally, through his organization, Albania Rafting Group.
“This experience [in Italy] helped make my dream come true,” Spathara says.
As the sport grew, the Albanian Rafting Federation was created in 2011 with Spathara as president.
Earlier this year, he had the chance to guide Prime Minister Edi Rama on a rafting expedition in the canyon. Rama later described the experience as “fantastic”.
Apart from tours of the Osumi River Canyon, Spathara’s organization offers hiking tours of the canyon and rafting tours along the Vjosa River near the town of Permet in southern Albania.
Spathara notes that following Rama’s visit, the government promised to improve the old road from Corovoda to Permet, saving tourists the many hours they need to travel by an alternative route.
“By making the road connecting the region of Skrapar with Permet accessible, tourists can travel directly and explore new places,” he says. “This will be an incentive for them to include these areas on their vacation map,” Spathara adds.
Blerina Ago, a manager at Albania Rafting Group, notes that the organization is also working to expand its operations, from rafting to promoting eco-tourism in the Skrapar area, with packages that extend to a few days’ stay, and which are having a positive impact on the local tourist industry.
“One of the goals of our organization is to maximize the economic returns from this activity in order to create new jobs through the development of ecotourism,” she says.
“Though our activities we have been able to increase the number of overnight stays of tourists visiting the area,” she adds.
Kastriot Bundo, owner of a hotel in Permet, notes that rafting has become the main source of revenue for tourism ventures in the region.
“Permet has entered the agenda of tourist agencies and explorations sports,” he says. “Rafting in particular has seen steady growth and as operators we are trying to respond to the demands of tourists by expanding accommodation and improving services.”
According to Bundo, alongside locals, tourists come from places like the UK, Germany and Austria but also from the Middle East.
“I found out about this place on YouTube and decided to visit, because has the nature is beautiful and it has added adrenaline,” says Ana, a Czech tourist who joined one of the rafting expeditions this summer on the Osumi River canyon.
“Everything is perfect for a tour here,” she adds with a smile.
Nentor Oseku, a lawyer from town of Gjakova in Kosovo, who has crisscrossed Albania many times, seeking unexplored places, agrees; rafting in the canyons gives him a feeling that is hard to put in words, he says.
“It’s an unforgettable experience that relieves all my stress from work,” Oseku says. “The adrenaline that you get is priceless.”