domingo, abril 23, 2017

Cultural Heritage: a key component in the development of the touristic Albanian cities

“Cultural Heritage” is a widely used phrase and it includes a variety of concepts. It is composed by two words that, when put together, give sense to a very broad set of ideas. “Culture” is defined as ‘the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively; the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular group of people’. “Heritage” is a property that is, or may be inherited and it includes valuable objects and qualities that have been passed down from previous generations.
In terms of culture, heritage represents preserved natural, architectural and historic values. As defined by UNESCO: The term ‘cultural heritage’ encompasses several classifications of heritage such as:  tangible heritage consisting of movable, immovable and underwater heritage; as well as intangible cultural heritage that  consists of oral traditions, performing arts and rituals.
When put into the Albanian context, cultural heritage is manifested in many ways. The history of Albania dates back to the 4th century BC. The principal timelines that have affected and somehow defined the country’s identity throughout its history are: The Illyrian Period (4th century BC), when the Albanian territory was resided by tribes that later joined in kingdom; the Roman Period (2nd century BD), when Albania’s territory was used as a strategic point where the Egnatia Road started; after the fall of the Roman Empire, when it became part of the Byzantine Empire and later on, it was divided into principalities. Following, there was the  Ottoman invasion, when Albania was part of the province of Rumelia (from 15th century to 1912).
After declaring its independence from the ottomans, Albania went through a short monarchy and later on a republic, until the Italian invasion (1939-1941), when the fascist Italy of the time occupied the Albanian territory as a display of power and also to spread its territory to what once was a key location of the Roman Empire. In 1943, Albania was invaded by the Germans and liberated from them in 1944, an event that marks the beginning of the communist regime that lasted until 1991. From 1991 until today, Albania has been a parliamentary republic.
The heritage of Albania dates as back as the above mentioned history, with traces from each era reflected in both material and immaterial sources. Albanian cities famous for their heritage, usually don’t share the same values. Each city has its own story, created during a specific period of time under a certain influence. 
For example, the city of Apollonia in Fier flourished in the Roman period and it was known for its school of philosophy. It is said that Augustus was there when Caesar died. Apollonia, nowadays, is recognized as an archaeological park. The city has a long list of archaeologist names working for its discovery throughout the last century. The archeological complex consists of: a bouleuterion, an odeon, a sanctuary, a prytaneion, a temple, an obelisk, a theatre and the ruins of a gymnasium.
Tourists that visit Albania explore this site more and more every year. There has been an increase of their interest and number, but nevertheless there are problems that this site faces as a touristic attraction. The main one is the lack of touristic facilities in the area. People who visit Apollonia choose to stay in cities nearby because of a lack of hotels. In this way, this site is a stop during a longer tour and not a destination. A similar case is the city of Butrint, recognized by UNESCO as a cultural monument and visited by 249,260 tourists a year. Besides the archeological site, the city has nothing more to offer to tourists who get accommodated in the nearby cities.
Durrës, another Albanian city, is known for the biggest port and amphitheater in Balkans, as well as the starting point of the Egnatia Road. It is situated in the western part of Albania along the Adriatic Sea. The city has always had a strategic geographic position concerning the Empires which it has been a part of. Furthermore, in terms of archaeological heritage, it has a castle wall, a venetian tower, the amphitheater, and some museums. Its material heritage, including mosaics, sculptures and other objects, is preserved in the city’s archaeological museum. It is the homeland of the famous actor Aleksandër Moisiu, whose childhood house still exists and is open to tourists. This city’s medieval ruins are underground and the new city center was built on top of them.
Nowadays, the future of these archaeological sites is at a critical point, because of the ruthless political strategies that intend to build new objects on the same ruins, which ironically are propagandized as touristic attractions. Durrës is one of the few Albanian cities that provides some of the best services and infrastructure to tourists. It has 15 hotels situated within the city center, and many more near the outskirt areas, which are known for the beaches, mostly during summertime. Due to the large number of tourists (150 000/year, when the city’s population is 278 775 residents), this city has very few public beaches, even though it has a 10 km sea line.
Durrës is seen simultaneously as a stop along the way as well as a destination. It has numerous agencies that organize tours, it is highly marketed and well known by the other Balkan countries residents who use it as a vacation destination, and it is also well known as an important city of the Mediterranean cruises. 
However, when speaking of cultural tourism, there are two Albanian cities very popular for their cultural heritage and both of them are part of the World Heritage List. Their values lie in the use of their rare Ottoman Architecture, yet, besides the recognition, there are also intangible values that give these cities a very strong local identity.
Berat is one of the oldest cities of my country. It goes back to 4th century BC. This city is divided into three main ‘neighborhoods’: Kalaja, Gorica & Mangalemi. Kalaja is the fortified part of the city, which includes a castle and many Byzantine churches and mosques. Parts of the Castle have building techniques that date back to 4th century BC, but most of it was built during the 13th century. On the other hand, Gorica & Mangalem are two sites that stand on opposite sides of Osumi River. They are composed of houses spread horizontally on both the slopes, with narrow cobblestone streets in between them. The city has a long tradition of craftsmen and even though its architecture represents the Ottoman period, the techniques are local. Berat is well known for its castle, churches, mosques, teqe-s (places where the merchants traded their goods), the ‘Gorica’ bridge and its museums. The most important one among them is the museum of a painter called Onufri, who made the murals of the most important churches in Berat.
Berat formally joined the World Heritage List of UNESCO in 2008. Before 2008, its heritage was recognized and protected by national laws and organizations that regard Museum Cities.
In spite of all the above mentioned values, maintaining cultural heritage may result difficult. Besides the funds approved by the appropriate institutions, there are also other initiatives that aim to preserve the tangible value and also increase the sensibility of the young generation about it. One of them, CHwB (Cultural Heritage without Borders) which is a non-governmental organization that aims to preserve and rescue cultural heritage, made its contribution to some monuments and buildings of Berat this year, by organizing restoration camps. The camps gathered students from all over Ballkan who were assigned to restore certain objects and buildings based on theoretical knowledge and craftsman training and surveillance.
The city of Berat is also known for its intangible culture. It is famous for the folkloric music and traditional dances. The municipality often organizes shows in public places to put the traditions in display and also to keep alive the local values.
In addition, the city is well known for its gastronomy. There are 25 restaurants in Berat serving purely traditional dishes, cooked with purely bio ingredients. It is well known for its meat (and there is a special way of cooking it into a dish named “përshesh”), the olives and the local wine produced and preserved in local canteens. 
Besides the above mentioned local values and main tourist attractions, as well, there are also flaws when managing tourism in the city. Material Heritage needs constant maintenance, which sometimes lacks, due to misleading politics and economic planning, disinformation and absence of socio-cultural awareness. All of the above, when put together with the lack of infrastructure, especially in the form of touristic facilities, leads to touristic underdevelopment and passivity. Even though local residents try to offer to tourists as much as they are capable of, sometimes it is not enough because of the deficit of expertise, which could be improved if exposed to professional trainings and strict regulations.
Nevertheless, the Ministry of Tourism is working on improving the quality of products and services offered in all the touristic cities of Albania. Touristic potential seems to be one of Albania’s strongest economic components, judging on its impact on the country’s GDP, which means that, with slight socio-political changes in the near future, the impact of Albanian tourism could highly accelerate the country’s economic growth. The most important challenge remains to achieve sustainable tourism development at the local, regional, national and international level, while the aim is to provide tourist practice that meets the interests and welfare of the local population, while preserving sociocultural and natural resources of the local environment for future generations.
For the realization of such practices, what could help is the effective advertising and marketing of Albania as a tourist destination with all its touristic areas, as well as the increasing awareness of Albanian citizens engaging in tourism development adequate market for the Albanian tourist product. Lastly, another strategic point would be the introduction of modern standards in tourism activities, the construction and development of modern infrastructure, responsible for the facilities capacity in the country, and the implementation of standards for the preservation and protection of cultural heritage and natural resources.

Erazmia Gjikopulli

Ajet Nallbani Lecture – 30th Regional Camps Berat, September 2016 

[artigo de opinião produzido no âmbito da unidade curricular “Património Cultural e Políticas de Desenvolvimento Regional” do curso de Mestrado em Mestrado em Património Cultural, do ICS/UMinho]

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