A glimpse of the resource-rich Western Balkans

In August 2019, The Balkan Forum took a trip to Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, to search for areas with significant cultural and natural heritage, and tourism potential, yet, less known regionally and internationally. Our aim is to promote the diverse and resource-rich Western Balkans region, and contribute to developing a positive image and narrative by emphasizing various opportunities for local development, encouraging people across the region to explore local resources and invest in their localities, and promoting the benefits of cross-border and cross-sector cooperation in the region.

This trip was a real inspiration for us not because we do not know much about the region but because we ourselves are unaware, as we believe many in the region are, about different places, the rich heritage, resources and values that we have in our countries, and especially hospitality - and kind people - almost hard-to-find elsewhere in the world. In this trip, we met individuals who - after years of living and working in Switzerland, Western Europe, United States and elsewhere in the world - returned back to the region and started family businesses.      

In these locations, which are a fraction of the richness of our region, we conducted over 20 interviews with local producers and tourism operators, and elicited important perspectives from foreign visitors - Belgian, Dutch, German and Italian - who praise people living in these areas for great hospitality and describe the nature as amazingly astonishing. A tourist from Belgium said: "Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro are very near from our country yet very far from our reality", while an Italian tourist that we met in North Macedonia said: "it is similar to areas in Italy but with different flavor". 

First places to visit were Prevallë and Rugovë in Kosovo with impressive flora and fauna, and natural beauties of Sharr mountain, Lybeten Peak, Albanian Alps, Rugova Canyon, Drini and Lumbardhi rivers, where we met charismatic individuals who are running family businesses as local producers and tourism operators and offer a variety of delicious, locally produced organic food, including accommodation and traditional dishes to local and foreign visitors.  

We continued to Vusanje (Vuthaj), Danilovgrad and Tuzi in Montenegro, where breathless landscape with lakes, water springs, rivers, canyons and mountains are as amazing as the coastline of the country, where booming mountainous tourism has become a great source of employment and local development. While producers of agricultural products, vegetable plants and seeds are supplying the local markets, the capital of the country, and cities with famous beaches which attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.      

We then had a fascinating trip to Belsh, Bulqizë and Peshkopi in Albania, along a curvy mountainous road, full of rivers, lakes, thermal spas, traditional houses called “kulla” and majestic views, which provide numerous opportunities for local development in these areas. The beautiful coastline of Albania is every year attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors during the summer season. While serious investments made in rapidly developing mountainous, eco, health and adventure tourism, are quickly turning the country into a top - all year - touristic destination.     

From village Rostuse to city of Veles in North Macedonia, we witnessed the incredible natural and cultural heritage, and learned about innovative ideas, in a country where IT sector is also reaching its peaks.   

In Prevallë, local producers of honey, dairy, fruit, herbs and medical plants, and sheep farming, run family businesses which employ 5 – 20 people, primarily their family members, but also people from neighboring villages, municipalities and countries. Some of them have a long tradition that goes back to 200 years. This helps them make a decent life, employ family members and generate income for education of their children and for growing their businesses. Their natural and organic products are purchased by families, tourists, shops and trade companies in Kosovo and the region.

Guesthouses are a new and booming industry in Kosovo and the region. Nikqi family in village Hajle, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Rugova Valley, started this business few years ago with one guesthouse, and expended it to five, in which all his family members are working. Tourists are served traditionally made local food and agricultural products grown by the host, neighbors and by other families living in other villages of Rugova Valley.

In Vusanje (Vuthaj), Gusinje area of Montenegro, Ulaj family is running a guesthouse, an almost 200 years-old traditional house called “kulla” where hundreds of visitors from different countries of the world are accommodated every year. Here we met a family from Brussels who were hiking across borders of Albania and Montenegro, and who described the area as an astonishingly beautiful, with clear rivers, rich flora and fauna, and a clean environment, free from noise and major pollutants.       

In Danilovgrad, family Radonjić, is running the plant - vegetable and flower – farming for almost 30 years. Their plants – around half a million per year are purchased by local farmers, three agricultural pharmacies in the beautiful coastline cities, and other companies in Montenegro.

Family Camaj in Tuzi, every year grows tens of tons of melon and water melon, potatoes, pepper, tomatoes and corn, which are primarily purchased by local markets in Tuzi and capital Podgorica, and by chain supermarkets and companies across Montenegro.

Belsh is a small municipality in central Albania, not much known for its beautiful 84 natural lakes, which is rapidly turning into an important tourist destination. Serious investments by local authorities in infrastructure and environment aim to turn Belsh into a must go place for tourists.

Bulqiza - a municipality in Albania, is very famous for its chrome mining, the largest chromium reserve in Albania and one of the largest in Europe. The area is also known for old traditional houses called “kulla”, one well-preserved, over 200 years-old is owned by family Hupi. It has been turned into a guesthouse and is attracting an increasing number of tourists from the region and the world. 

Peshkopi, a town in Diber County, northeastern Albania, is famous for its thermal spa, which is visited by tourists primarily from other areas of Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, but also from Montenegro and Serbia.  

Duf Waterfall, near village Rostuse, is an amazing waterfall located in the national park of Mavrovo, in the northern part of North Macedonia. Rostuse is a small locality with rich natural and cultural heritage and a step away from well-known spas, which is attracting an increasing number of local and foreign visitors. 

City of Veles - located in the central part of North Macedonia - is known as industrial center, and recently as a leader in IT industry. In Veles, Dimce Ackov, is promoting a better world by giving a personal example how this can be done with little effort and almost no money. Dimce is building an ecovillage called Green Bliss, which is quite unique undertaking in the Western Balkans, and is inviting people to join efforts to building a better world for all by protecting the environment, building energy efficient earth houses by also using recycled material, and by living in harmony with the nature.

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