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Despite a wildcat construction boom that is choking the town with its own phenomenal growth, Mayor Stefan Cipa says the battle to preserve Saranda is not lost.
|Mayor of Saranda Stefan Cipa | Photo by : Telnis Skuqi|
Once known as the pearl of the Albanian Riviera, Saranda is built like an amphitheatre around a bay overlooking the Ionian Sea and the Greek Island of Corfu.
Only a decade ago the town was a collection of small villas and a few hotels, divided by broad stairways that descended into its maritime walkway, surrounded with palm trees and bougainvillea.
Ten years on, following a feral construction boom, the town is now a city, dotted with high-rise concrete apartment blocks that seem to battle each other for space.
The landscape has changed so dramatically over the past decade that its territory has increased with 54,000 square metres, as a result of illegal landfills of its coastline by developers.
“Illegal construction and the city’s over-development is our main problem,” Stefan Cipa, Saranda’s mayor told Balkan Insight in an interview on the eve of the tourist season.
“We have tried to put a stop to illegal builds in the city, but we cannot say that we have completely eliminated them,” Cipa admitted, while out to monitor renovation works in the city’s only public fountain.
According to a survey conducted by the municipality last year, visitors and local tourist operators singled out erratic urban sprawl and construction as the main drawback to tourism.
The mayor says that over past year the municipality has not issued any new building permits and had tried to control many of the former permits that were issued and are not in accordance with the legal framework.
However, his efforts to rein unscrupulous developers have not always been successful, due to a lack of support from the central government and the courts.
“Unfortunately we have lost every case that the municipality has brought in court against developers,” Cipa laments.
|Saranda | Photo by : Telnis Skuqi|
A historic port town, Saranda is dotted with nearly 120 archeological monuments, which, apart from its natural surrounding, are prime tourism assets.
However, Cipa complains that previous city administrations have not guarded such monuments as they should, issuing construction permits for new apartments in archeological sites illegally.
Although the mayor admits that facing up to developers and their lobby is not easy, he believes that by setting an example as an institution, and by striving towards a more sustainable development plan, the business community will eventually come round.
“This is a challenge that I have taken on not only personally but also as an institution,” he said.
“Saranda has inherited many problems but it still has many assets that will help us return it to its former glory,” Cipa added.
Despite the damage that has already been done, the mayor says the city has a lot to offer and an effort to increased park areas and green spaces will be the focus of his administration.
According to the mayor, the effort to curb developers does not aim to alienate the construction business community, but rather to challenge them.
“Our initiative to cut down on concrete and grow flowers and plant trees has been welcomed by the community,” Cipa said.
|Mayor Stefan Cipa, inspecting works to renovate the city's fountain | Photo by : Telnis Skuqi|
“Some of those who have interests linked to these illegal constructions might be unhappy, but many more support us in our efforts,” he added.
One of the key tourist attraction sites that draws visitors to Saranda is the ancient city of Butrint, located only 20 kilometers away near the Greek border.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Butrint hosts some of the most spectacular Roman archeological ruins in the Mediterranean.
Many visitors arrive in Saranda on cruise ships or by ferry from the nearby Greek island of Corfu. Drawing on the potential to receive ever-larger ships that navigate the Mediterranean, the World Bank has financed the construction of new cruise line terminal.
However, the project that should have been finished in 2009, due to bureaucratic delays, will only be completed by the end of this year.
Another major concern for the municipality remains waste treatment and disposal.
Although a waste water treatment facility with a cost of €5.2 million was constructed with World Bank financing, it has yet to be connected to the sewage network.
According the municipality the plant remains idle as its waits for €800,000 investment for a new collector pipe by the central government.
Cipa reject the idea that the damage done by developers to Saranda is irreversible.
Although the city still faces many problems, the mayor says that visitors will see a changed image this tourist’s season, but they need the support of the government to go further.
“Saranda has lost a battle [with developers], which has left its damage. But I profoundly believe we will go back to our best tradition and join the elite of the Albanian tourism sector,” he concluded.
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