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Feature 11 Jul 17

Migrants to Greece Strike Gold Back in Albania

After leaving Albania for Greece as children, some youngsters have started returning and investing in the Albanian Riviera - lured by both nostalgia and a hunger for profit. 

Fatjona Mejdini
Albanian Southern Riviera. Photo: BIRN/Loreta Cuka

Vangelis Giannilas was only one year old when he left the coastal Albanian village of Dhermi and went to Athens, where he grew up dreaming of becoming a policeman.

He never imagined that the small house with a big garden overlooking the Bay of Drymades that he inherited from his grandfather would make his fortune and lure him back.

“I visited the village during the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, but only for short vacations and to meet the family. Due to the bad infrastructure and the poor rule of law, I never thought I’d move back here for work,” he told BIRN.

However, in 2012, after being unable to find work in Greece, which was hit hard by financial crisis, he came back to Dhermi for a short holiday - and saw that the area was far better developed now than before.

He opened a small café-shop that summer in the courtyard of his old house and, for the first time, spent four whole months in Dhermi, as the money started to roll in.

“The next summer, I started to think bigger and joined forces with my father and we started a guesthouse, the Yard Paradise, where I became the manager,” he said.

The so-called Albanian Rivera, where his guesthouse is located, is a meeting point between the mountains and the Ionian Sea.

Small villages dot the slopes of the mountains that lead down to bays with shingle beaches and turquoise waters.

Many people from this area left their homes n the early Nineties, after the fall of communism, searching for a better life elsewhere.

Mainly, they headed for then-prosperous Greece, which, compared to impoverished Albania, offered a much better life and business opportunities.

The region’s poor infrastructure, combined with the large outward migration of the locals to Greece, are among the reasons why tourism in the area was slow to get going.

However, in recent years, demand for accommodation has started to outstrip capacity.

With the various improvements made to the region’s infrastructure in the last few years, many of those who left have started coming back, investing in guesthouses, restaurants, bars and private beaches.

Thimio Gjinuci and his family, like many of their compatriots from the small coastal town of Himara, migrated to Greece in 1992, leaving behind his grandfather’s home on a hill overlooking the coastal town.

Gjinuci first started thinking of going back to Albania when he reached 16 and spent the summer back home.

After years spent living and studying in Greece, he was annoyed to be unable to express his true feelings properly in Albanian to a young girl he had met from Tirana.

“I felt so frustrated, so when I went back to Greece I started to re-learn Albanian. After studying for four years in Athens I didn’t realise how much I had forgotten. My dream of returning to Himara was rekindled,” he told BIRN.

He risked leaving behind a good life in Greece. Gjinuci had studied microbiology at university and had worked in a private hospital in Athens.

“I had a very comfortable and well-paid job, but I don’t tend to follow careers but dreams,” he told BIRN.

“My love for Himara and the urge to contribute to this place took me back there again,” he added.

From 2010 onwards, he started spending whole summers in Himara, leaving behind his job in Athens and doing volunteering work, cleaning up the beaches and helping the doctors in the town hospital.

Three years later, he opened a guesthouse that comprises several wooden cottages surrounded by olive trees and gardens.

“I enjoy managing the place a lot,” he said. “ I have made it one of the few such initiatives in the south [of Albania] where respect for the environment is at the top of the agenda.”

Vangelis Giannilas had to learn Albanian from scratch after starting his business in Dhermi.

“I emigrated as a toddler and never got the chance to learn Albanian, though with the help of my clients I’m doing very well now,” he said.

Both Giannilas and Gjinuci now host hundreds of guests each summer from all over the world.

Giannilas said he had started to earn more during one summer in Albania than he would have earned for a whole year of work in Greece.

However, neither is back in Albania full time. Both still share their lives between Albania and Greece, spending summers in Albania and winters in Greece.

The nascent tourist industry in the area is still based around beaches and sunshine, while the efforts of the authorities to develop winter and cultural tourism are still very modest in scale.

Giannilas plans to increase his accommodation capacities in future. He believes the involvement of more youngsters coming from Greece to manage tourism in Albania will give the area a real boost.

“It's time for youngsters like me to lend a hand to the management of tourism in the area. The more of them here, the better the coast will develop,” he said. 

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