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Feature 20 Jul 17

Golden Tourist Future Awaits Albania’s Mystery Island

Once the sealed-off home of military personnel, the island of Sazan, off Vlora, is becoming a major attraction for Albanians and foreigners alike.

Fatjona Mejdini

Enver Hoxha, the infamous dictator of Albania, had a grand plan for the island of Sazan: to turn into a rocky fortress against the Western powers that he feared might invade his fiefdom.

The biggest island off Albania, covering a total area of 5.7 square km, it lies strategically between the Adriatic and Ionian seas in the middle of the territorial waters of Albania and Italy, or the so-called “Otranto Strait”.

The island has long served as a military base. Italian forces occupied it in 1920 and it was only on October 22, 1944, towards the end of the Second World War, that Hoxha’s Partisans declared its liberation.

While Hoxha proudly declared that Albania now held the “keys of the Otranto Strait”, referring to Sazan, he started work on transforming the island in a heavily fortified area.

The Soviets helped out with munitions and expertise, while dozens of tunnels - some of them anti-nuclear shelters - were built on the island. What Hoxha knew to do best, of course, were his trademark bunkers. Around 3,600 of them were erected on the island.

However, the war machinery being built in Sazan needed people, and during the 46 years of the dictatorial system, around 10,000 of them had to live in the area.

The families of soldiers, admirals and generals filled the island, while infrastructure followed, including houses, culture halls, schools, hospital and community facilities. Human life flourished amid the struggle to secure electric energy and drinking water.

However, for the rest of Albania, Sazan was a place of mystery and legend. For people not related to the life on the island, this was a restricted area.

The fall of the Communist regime did not lift the curtain on Sazan, either. The Albanian army continued to use it as a military base, while the Italian and Albanian police now used to track illegal activities and movements between the two countries.

In 2015, the government for the first time briefly allowed tourist boats from the Bay of Vlora to dock in Sazan and people could see the hidden island and swim from its beaches. But in 2016 the island was closed off again.

This April, however, after the Ministries of Defence, Economy and Tourism reached an agreement, they decided to open up the island once again for tourist purposes from May to October. Vlora-based tourist agencies immediately grabbed the chance.

 Lure for tourists despite the lack of facilities

Sazan island. Photo: BIRN

On a July morning, in the port of Vlora, around 200 people were waiting to depart for a full-day boat trip to Sazan – the trip also included the Karaburun peninsula.

Locals and tourists from all over the world gathered with excitement while the four boat crews were making the last agreements with the port authorities.

Ruzhdi Ganiki a businessman from Peja in Kosovo who has lived in Norway for 26 years, was thrilled to see Sazan, an island that he only heard about in Communist-era movies and in the news, as a mysterious military base in a strategic position.

“Our vacation destination was Saranda, but as long as I heard that Sazan island was an option I kept my family in Vlora for two days, just to have the possibility to visit it,” he told BIRN.

Lefter Dhima, one of the captains of the boats touring the island and the Karaburun peninsula, told BIRN that having Sazan on the list of places where they can land had become a major attraction.

“Nobody wants to sail with us anymore if Sazan is not on the list,” he said.

However, complete access to the island is still not possible. The boats are restricted over where they can land, as half of the island is still occupied by a military base.

At 7pm sharp the last visitors must leave the island, while no one is allowed to overnight there.

The nine miles of water from Vlora port to Sazan are crossed in about an hour-and-a-half, but this is not a problem for the tourists who can enjoy the onboard sight of flocks of dolphins swimming by. Albanians fill their time with traditional dances that the foreigners eagerly follow.

However, tourist guides have their concerns when it comes to meeting the comfort needs of the travellers as no facilities exist as yet on the island.

Migen Xhelo a tourist operator in Vlora, told BIRN that is difficult to get tourists to stay for long on the island because there are no bars, restaurants, toilets or guide facilities.

What tourists can find now in Sazan are shingle beaches with turquoise waters, fine scenery, tunnels, endless bunkers, and the ruins of a Communist-era town.

While a concrete path takes them up to the hill, many bunkers and tunnels start to emerge, together with the buildings where military families spent years of their lives.

The elementary school building named “October 22” - after the day of liberation – contains 13 classrooms that seem to hold the echoes of voices of children in the distant past. Some of the old school desks are still in place.

The Culture Palace is also now destroyed, however, just like the summer theatre and the town’s one-time bar and restaurant.

Xhelo believes that if tourists were offered more information about the Communist-era buildings and town, the whole experience would be much better.

“The site is without doubt historic in many ways. With not much investment, it could be turned into an important Mediterranean destination,” he said.

When it comes to investment and the island’s future, the government has remained silent however. No public plan has ever emerged over Sazan.

Despite the lack of facilities, after two hours spent roaming there, Ruzhdi Ganiki considers the island even more beautiful than he imagined.

"I'm a great patriot and will travel thousands of kilometers to visit good places in Albania,” he said.

“But now my good business instincts are speaking: This island is gold,” he concluded.

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