When it opened in 1979, the Hotel Tirana was the pearl of Albania. Built in a smooth Soviet style, it was comfortably the tallest tower in the land, offering an ideal meeting space for foreign diplomats and apparatchiks alike. But this being the country of Enver Hoxha – perhaps the most unhinged communist despot of the century – the Hotel Tirana came equipped with more eccentric features too, such as a network of secret underground tunnels, that meant the property was perfect for officials looking to make a quick getaway.

And while it has since been renamed and reopened in a post-communist, democratic Albania, the Hotel Tirana is in some ways symbolic of how the country has fared even since the end of the Cold War. Destitute and bewildered after 40 years of Stalinism, the Albanian economy has struggled even as its Balkan neighbours soared. And nowhere is this clearer than what the Hotel Tirana nominally represented: Albanian hospitality. From Dubrovnik to Kotor, Croatia and Montenegro are now among the most popular destinations in Europe. Slovenia, with its Mitteleuropean charm, is rising too. Even Bosnians – victims of a different kind of trauma – have made Sarajevo into an attractive weekend destination.

Tirana? Not so much. As recently as 2012, the country known to locals as the Land of the Eagles welcomed a mere 3.5 million international visitors, a fraction of Croatia’s 47 million according to the WTO’s Yearbook of Tourism Statistics. Nor is this hard to understand. With crumbling infrastructure and a dearth of investors, Albanian hospitality has found it hard to get noticed. But all of a sudden, things are changing. Offering tourists wonderful food, gorgeous mountains and a helmet full of history, Albania is suddenly a place worth visiting. That’s been clearest during the pandemic: as one of the few states not to impose a travel ban, Albania has seen tourists flock from across the Balkans and beyond. It goes without saying that hotel operators have jumped in too – starting a trend that could yet transform the country’s fortunes forever.

In from the cold

Blerina Ago grew up on stories of the old Albania. Her parents lived through the Hoxhaist nightmare. “The state had absolute control, marked by repression, isolation and paranoia,” explains Ago, a tourism consultant and founder of travel company Active Albania. At the same time, Ago argues that Albania’s unique experience of communism left the country deeply unsuited to what came next. That’s even as Croatia and Slovenia – once part of Tito’s Yugoslavia, a dictatorship run on rather softer lines – eventually joined the EU and the euro.

Certainly, using Albania’s past to explain its present seems plausible, not least if you examine the state of the country’s infrastructure. With potholed roads being the norm, government statistics have found that one Albanian dies in an accident every day of the year. Nor have Albania’s airports historically been much better. Whenever he’s flown into Tirana’s Rinas International, Hylko Versteeg, the Southern Europe senior development director at IHG, says he’s often been left shocked at how small everything feels. Combine this with educational challenges (60% of Albanians speak only their mother tongue) and the constant spectre of pollution (over a quarter of deaths are related to environmental problems), and it’s perhaps unsurprising that Versteeg concedes that investment opportunities have traditionally been lacking. Yet speak to the experts for long and it’s clear things are changing. The numbers, in themselves, are striking. In 2019, after all, the WTO reported that Albania welcomed 6.4 million foreigners, while revenue from tourism peaked at $2.4bn, according to CEIC. That’s stalked by greater investment, with the government spending over a million dollars to create a Tourism Investment and Finance Fund. Hotel operators clearly sense opportunity knocking too. Radisson and Marriott are just two of the global firms to open properties in the country, while Versteeg and IHG are hard at work too.

Nor are these varied developments particularly unusual if you appreciate everything Albania has to offer. Strategically located at the crossroads of the continent, Albania has hosted everyone from Byzantines to Ottomans. That mix gives Albanian architecture a cosmopolitan sparkle, from the mosques in Berat to Venetian towers at Durrës. This varied history has also shaped Albanian cooking. “You can practically smell the pizza wafting across the water from southern Italy,” says Ago, a point echoed by the Hungarian-inflected goulash or byrek from Turkey. Natural beauty is yet another draw. In the north, razor-tipped mountains tumble down into lakes the colour of topaz and sapphire. Along the coasts, yellow beaches embellish a gentle sea. Together with a welcoming culture, Ago says her small country boasts “almost everything nature, culture and heritage has to offer”.

Out with the old

Looming behind the original 1979 building like a shadow, the InterContinental Tirana will boast around 300 rooms and suites, as well as a conference centre and ballroom. Examine the details and it’s clear that the InterContinental, due to open in 2025 under a franchise agreement between IHG and a local businessman, is different from what came before. That’s true, for instance, of the property’s luxury spa, complete with steam room and indoor swimming pool.

Nor is the InterContinental, centrally located on Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square, especially unique. On the contrary, Versteeg says the investment is of a piece with the country more broadly, noting that there’s “a lot of investment” across Albania as a whole. Listen to Versteeg and it’s hard to disagree. Focusing on his own company, he describes other IHG projects in the Land of the Eagles, notably a 140-room Crowne Plaza on the coast at Durrës. It’s a similar story for other international operators – Radisson recently unveiled the Morina, a glitzy hotel near the Grand Park of Tirana – and Hilton already has a Garden Inn in the capital and plans to open a branded property there as well. That’s shadowed by domestic growth too: Ago points out that domestic chains have lately increased their portfolio from 525 rooms to 888 rooms. And as these varied developments imply, Albania is not simply a place for tourism. Versteeg argues that business travellers are an important target demographic too, especially in capital. That’s hardly surprising: boasting armies of cheap labour and yearly annual growth topping 4.1%, Albania has plenty to offer visiting entrepreneurs, says Ago.

The local government, for its part, is doing its best to prod things along. That encompasses everything from tax breaks for internationally-branded hotels to VAT cuts on the services they offer. Together with a range of infrastructure projects – expanding Rinas International, developing six new port areas, a €53m loan for a pair of bypasses – Versteeg believes Albania also has the potential to be a destination that tourists from further north enjoy travelling through. At the moment, Germans or Austrians driving to Greece tend to avoid the country. “But once that infrastructure is more consolidated,” he stresses, “it’s obviously a much more beautiful route.”


It would be wrong, however, to believe that Albania’s touristic future can be wrapped up with a bow. There’s the continuing question of education – though many young Albanians enthusiastically learn English, Verstaag warns there are few hospitality schools in the country, which sometimes makes it hard for staff to “cater to the international public”. In a similar vein, Ago suggests that operators should be careful not to overinflate their portfolio while her homeland is still developing. “As a fast-growing sector,” she says, “the demand for skills in the tourism sector often outstrips the supply of the labour market. Hoteliers, restaurants and tour operators often struggle to find the necessary skills at all levels, from entry level to management. This can have a negative impact on productivity and the service provided and therefore on business reputation, profitability and future investments.”

All the same, both Verstaag and Ago are optimistic. If nothing else, Verstaag is excited by the country’s sheer novelty. As one of the last European countries to be ‘discovered’ by adventurous visitors, he says that the current enthusiasm for “experiential tourism” is bound to make the country appealing. Ago, for her part, is buoyed by the warmth of local people. She describes an old Albanian motto – literally translated as ‘bread, salt and a kind heart’ – and says it speaks perfectly to the welcoming values of the country. “All that I have, which might not be much, I will share with my guest who honoured my house with their presence.” A lovely sentiment – and surely a better reflection of Albania’s future than its past.