COVID-19, the big blow to Albanian tourism

Author: Denis Tahiri

“Difficult season, we are bleeding money”, this is the universal sentence that you can hear on the entire Albanian Riviera from businessmen who have invested in the tourism industry during this uncommon summer. On the south coast you can hardly find a hotel you can enter without first measuring the temperature, disinfecting your hands and sometimes even filling out the form to see if you had COVID-19 symptoms.

Many customers canceled their reservations due to the pandemic and many others found it difficult to get to Albania due to restrictions on movement abroad.

During this tourist season, problems were also encountered by the tourist structures that have been operating in the Albanian market for 17 years. “This year has been a very difficult year for business, I can consider it as one of the most difficult years of the 17 years we operate in this market. First it was the earthquake, then the pandemic. The pandemic was a major problem, as we initially took it lightly, we thought it would be only the first months of the season but there was an extension and there is no end to it, “says Mirjeta Ismaili, general manager at Hotel Bonita, for the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism .

And with the lack of information on how they can operate, the steps to enter the tourist season this year have been very small, as no one knew what would happen, this has made hotel structures change their strategy, trying to attract as many customers as possible, who this summer, unlike other summers, have been reluctant to make reservations.

“This has been a big problem because in addition to the prices that we have changed, which are 30% lower compared to previous years, the clientele inflow has not been at the right level”, says Mirjeta, who adds that the contracts with foreign travel companies have been canceled.

Although Albania, like few other countries, kept its borders open to all other countries, the arrival of tourists, especially from the European Union, was hit hard, due to Albania’s inclusion among high-risk countries and quarantine measures required after EU re-entry.

And in these times of pandemic, where nothing is safe, even the tourist facilities which during September and early November welcome students from Kosovo and other countries, are not safe bookings.

“We usually continued with students at this time, we had 500-600 students, Kosovo graduates who made excursions, in September until the end of November, but this chance has gone, so from this moment we go again on a deficit. It is not at all like last year, it is not even 10%. Because the two that we call seasons, that is, the part of spring and autumn that we operated with graduation is totally broken, there is no income from them”, says Mirjeta, who adds that September will see a reduction of staff in the hotel that she manages, because they can no longer keep them at work, “To keep them and not pay them is not logical, there is no work, we are obliged to keep a basic staff, that too with great difficulty because we have no income”, she concludes.

Warning and figures

Prior to the official start of the tourist season, warnings of a strong blow to the tourism industry did not go unnoticed. Albania was rated as one of the countries that would suffer the most from the COvid-19 pandemic with a 5% drop in its economy according to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and up to -9% from the Stock Exchange.

Visual Capitalist, meanwhile, compiled a map with data from the World Tourism Organization listing countries that are highly dependent on their tourism, including countries where the tourism and travel industry contributes directly or indirectly to more than 15% of employment. Albania ranks 30th with an employment share of 22% in the country’s economy. According to the report, the lack of a steady influx in tourism revenues would face many countries with severe effects on the economy. However, while the balance of economic loss from the tourism industry has not yet been made, the official figures of the first 6 months of 2020, might show a huge loss.

According to INSTAT, in the first quarter of 2020 the capacity utilization of accommodation structures decreased by 10.4% compared to the first quarter of 2019. The number of nights spent decreased by 9.4% compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, in the second quarter of 2020, the figures show an even greater decrease in visitors.

“The number of visitors has decreased by 75.6%, compared to the second quarter of 2019. The number of nights spent has decreased by 76.6%, compared to the second quarter of 2019”, says INSTAT.

Summer season from the tour operators’ point of view

Besnik Vathi, who is a well-known name of Albanian tourism, operating with his business for many years as a tour operator says that the shock to the tourism industry started before the pandemic came to our country.

“The peculiarity of this industry is that it suffered before the pandemic got to our country. “The punch in the gut for Albania started the moment the virus broke out, the fear of spreading the virus started immediately with the outbreak of the pandemic in China”, he says, adding: “It is not that we have an influx of tourists in winter, with the beginning of spring we quarantined and 100% of all bookings for the spring season were canceled. As the spring period is the moment when the reservations are made for the summer, and in the conditions, we were in made the reservations for the summer to be canceled as well”.

In an interview for the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism, Vathi says that this is a difficult year for Albanian tourism and according to him it can go to 20%-30% of last year’s realization, these figures are quite low for a sector of the economy with a lot of weight. “A large number of hotels have closed, agencies have closed, while 30% -40% of businesses may not have closed but have reduced activity to a minimum,” he said.

The only sure thing that can be said is that the consequences of this year in tourism are not lacking, but will this affect the coming years? Besnik Vathi says that it is not easy to predict how deep and severe these consequences will be for other years as well.

“If a business is hit, suspended, closed, or lays off employees, to regain the state they had before the pandemic, it is not easy economically, as income is needed to put them to work but even laid-off employees may no longer be available to that business, as they may have left the country, they may have changed their profile, etc. “, Vathi adds that in these conditions it is very difficult to put them to work, always keeping in mind that we will return to normal with the finding of a cure or vaccine.

Besnik Vathi, regarding the number of people who spent this summer in Albania, says that he believes that it is a smaller number than reflected in the media.

“Unlike what is reflected in the media, I have the impression that it is not that more Albanians have vacationed in Albania, in total there have been less than other years. So, it is not that Albanian tourism benefited in total from the closure, we all lost. They also lost the part that was already going on vacations, because there may have been movement within the different structures and layers of the society “, he says for ACQJ, adding that a part of those who usually vacationed abroad this year vacationed in Albania, while those who vacationed in Albania did not have the economic opportunities to go or chose not to go on vacation for fear of the pandemic.

Vathi says the tourism sector should have been supported more by the government because, according to him, it was left to plummet.

“This sector after the opening was left in free fall and it was considered as if the blow was only with the closure in quarantine, despite the fact that we did not receive the blow in quarantine. “Even during the quarantine, we were not obliged not to show up for work, but there was and there still is no activity.”

He also says that in recovery we will not be alone, but we will be in competition with countries which not only consider tourism as a priority but also with those who do not consider tourism a priority at all, but take measures, even countries that do not have it at all. “Germany, for example, is not a country known for tourism but has taken measures with salaries and donations with various grants to pass the pandemic period. “We, who have it as a priority, have left it to plummet”, he says.

Measures that could have been taken to support this sector, according to Vathi, are numerous. He emphasizes that these measures can still be taken and relate not only to employees of the business. “Business had to be supported, with direct measures such as paying rents, bank loans, to see the possibility of being exempted from paying taxes for one or two years in recovery, so these would be direct measures,” he said. adding that there are countries which also applied very important indirect measures, such as Italy and France which distributed holiday vouchers to low-income citizens in order for these vouchers to be used in the domestic tourism.

“So, that slogan “Vacation in Albanian” that was translated from “Vacation in Italy”, should have been translated in full, accompanied by those measures that were accompanied in Italy or in France and not only call on the people to vacation in Albania, as if these people were not born and were not Albanian and did not know Albania “, he concludes.

“Lockdown” and the missing tourists

With the spread of Covid-19, the whole world closed its borders and movement outside the border was only for specific categories of citizens who needed movement. But the movement of people is one of the key elements of tourism. In Albania, the closure of borders had major consequences in this sector.

Referring to data from INSTAT, the influx of Albanians and foreigners in our country during May were 46,488 people, a decrease of 94.4% compared to May 2019.

At that time INSTAT would report that: “The number of foreign nationals entering our country during the first five months of 2020 is 602,300, decreasing by 60.0%, compared to the same period of 2019. During the five months In 2020, Montenegro has the lowest decrease in the number of citizens entering Albania by 51.1%, while the largest decrease was from Poland with 89.0%, compared to the same period of 2019”.

This. decrease in the entry of Albanian and foreign citizens in Albania would continue during June, where it would mark a decrease of 66.3% compared to June 2019. During June, 179,594 foreign citizens entered our country, a decrease of 71.5% compared to the same period a year ago. Foreign nationals who had the largest decline were those of Poland where compared to June 2019, there have been 95.3% fewer Polish citizens entering the borders of Albania.

A similar situation occurred during July, when INSTAT announced that: “The entries of Albanian and foreign citizens in the Albanian territory, in July 2020, are 663,980. Compared to July 2019, this indicator results with a decrease of 61.5%. In July 2020, the entries of foreign citizens in the Albanian territory were 387,716. Compared to July 2019, this number has decreased by 67.1%. During July 2020, the foreign nationals who preferred Albania less were the Spanish, showing a decrease of 88.6% compared to the same period of 2019.

In a year where every sector of the economy was hit, where the country’s economy shrank due to restrictions in the battle against COVID-19, what is certain is that the tourism sector was hit the hardest of all. While the end of the pandemic that has plagued the world is still unknown, the question that arises is what measures will be taken by the Albanian state, to facilitate many economic sectors to withstand the blow received, but also their recovery in the face of not small competition from neighboring countries.

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