Published on Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Albania restaurants adopt farm-to-table approach for big portion of tourism

Albania supports sustainable tourism development with tax breaks

When Altin Prenga decided to leave Italy after a decade as a migrant there and start a small family-run restaurant in his native village of Fishte, northern Albania, everybody was calling him crazy.

Almost a decade on, his restaurant has turned into a success story for Albania's emerging agritourism industry and his business has gained international recognition as a perfect place offering farm-to-table food, employing dozens of local households

Having honed his craft as a migrant in Italy after leaving Albania at only 15, Prenga decided to come back to Albania in 2009 and become a pioneer in Albania's agribusiness industry by opening the internationally famed 'Mrizi i Zanave' restaurant named after a poetry volume by Gjergj Fishta, one of Albania's best 20th century writers who was born in Fishte village.

The 35-year-old chef-owner now boasts one of the country's best slow food restaurants with original dishes created from local home grown food and animals.

His success has inspired many others to try the farm-to-table restaurants and the Albanian government is now offering tax incentives for the emerging industry.

Fundim Gjipali, another award-winning Albanian chef who shares his time between Rome and Tirana where he owns downtown restaurants, is also opening up an agribusiness in his hometown of Shijak, some 30 km off Tirana, under the farm-to-table philosophy incorporating seasonal ingredients and minimizing the distance between the farm and the diner's plate.

Dozens of others are experimenting to bring Italian models to Albania but experienced chefs already in the industry say agribusiness requires tradition and only those who make a difference will manage to survive.

In a new fiscal package that the Albanian government has adopted, the emerging agritourism sector is also set to benefit from several tax incentives, including a 5 percent corporate income tax, a reduced 6 percent VAT and exemption from the infrastructure tax on investment.

Businesses engaged in agritourism will also benefit a reduced 5 percent corporate income tax for a 10-year period in case they get the status of 'certified agritourism operator' until late 2021.

The incentives are aimed at giving a boost to agro-tourism, currently in its initial stages in Albania with few restaurants, wineries, bee and fruit farms offering tourists authentic local products.

Albania has also undertaken a campaign to brand its unique agriculture products to boost agro-tourism through the promotion of quality authentic Albanian products such as olive oil, mountain tea, medicinal and aromatic plants considered some of Albania's rarest riches.

Korça apples and honey, Berat olive oil, Tropoja chestnuts, Saranda mandarins and northern Albanian medicinal plants as well as Fier region vegetables are already renowned products regionally, in addition to the local Raki, a clear liquor usually made from grapes which is the traditional alcoholic drink of Albanians. However, they lack international recognition and certification to penetrate EU markets.

In its 2018-2022 draft strategy on the sustainable tourism development, agro-tourism is high on the agenda as one of the tools not only serving tourism promotion and economic development, but also making tourism more sustainable and preserving and promoting the cultural and local identity.

The tourism ministry says it will also prioritize mixing cultural tourism with agro-tourism through a 'rural renaissance' program that will restore historic villages such as the Theth mountain tourism destination in northern Albania and the Dhermi and Vuno coastal villages along the southern Albanian Riviera.

Agriculture is a key sector to the Albanian economy, employing about half of the country's GDP but producing only a fifth of the GDP, unveiling its low productivity which is hampered by the fragmentation of farm land into small plots and poor financing and technology employed.

Meanwhile, tourism, although highly seasonal, is becoming a booming business in Albania, generating about 1.7 billion euros a year, some 14 percent of the country's GDP from an estimated 5 million tourists.

The Albanian government has selected 100 villages nationwide to upgrade their infrastructure and public services and promote agritourism by offering incentives and grants to support local characteristic agriculture products.

Prime Minister Edi Rama says agritourism and the 100 villages program is a new tool to shift attention to rural areas and their untapped potential and bring migrants closer to their home villages.

"I am convinced that this program will be an important turning point in relations between Albanian migrants who have left their home villages and now work in Greece, Italy or elsewhere, not as nostalgia or an obligation to send monthly remittances to help parents and relatives, but as an instrument to make a profit enabling everybody that makes an investment to earn in a year more than they do with their current jobs abroad," says Prime Minister Edi Rama.

The initiative comes as dozens of villages in Albania, especially in the poorer northern regions, are already being abandoned due to massive migration and households moving to nearby urban areas or central Albania.

High migration rates and a sharp decline in the number of birth rates has turned into a key concern in Albania where about 1.2 million people, almost 40 percent of the country's 2.8 million resident population, already live abroad, making Albania one of the top countries with the highest per capita migration globally.

 Once Europe's cannabis capital, the Lazarat village in southern Albania, is also among the 100 selected villages that will have their infrastructure upgraded in a bid to make them agribusiness oriented.

Almost four years after the collapse of its internationally acclaimed pot industry, the Lazarat village has lost most of its youngsters and luxury cars and agriculture and sheep farming is the only thing the elderly people remaining there can do to earn a living. Authorities are now promoting local agriculture products and replace the once booming Lazarat pot industry with medicinal plants.

The Theth and Valbona mountain tourism villages in northern Albania, Shengjergj and Pellumbas on Mount Dajti outside Tirana, the Dhermi and Vuno coastal villages along the southern Albanian Riviera and Lin and Tushemisht across the Albanian part of Lake Ohrid, southeast of the country, are among the 100 villages selected as part of the integrated rural development project Albania intends to apply from 2018 to 2020.

Valere Tjolle

Valere is editor of SustainableTourism02 - this week's Vision story here

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