I am Blerina and I come from the city of Berat, Albania. At the age of 14 and I was on the bank of the Osum River to experience my first time rafting experience. The adrenaline rush and magical scenery in the spectacular Osum Canyons had an impact for the next 18 years throughout my personal and professional journey.
At the time my tourist experience started, the news mentioned Albania only as an unsafe and troubled country.
In those days I showed one of the first printed photos taken inside the magnificent Osum canyons to one dear Italian friend of mine and he said, “Nooo, it is not real, it’s photoshop.” But when he came to do rafting and saw nothing with his own eyes, he was stunned and all the time it was …. “Mamma mia …. mamma mia”.
I think the above the long journeys by car of 7 hours to the Osum Canyons, the total lack of infrastructure, the challenge of raising everything from scratch, the lack of culture for embracing an unknown adventure, the total lack of tourism services, it was precisely the visitors’ impressions that gave me hope that Albania, a post-communist country, very, very poor and isolated for more than 45 years, would be transformed for better through tourism.
Of course not many people shared this opinion. Some thought I was unconscious, that I did not know what to fantasize about, that it was just a ridiculous idea and that I was an immature teenager. Even a minister at that time when I was showing to him with enthusiasm in a video projector the 7 exotic waterfalls falling from 150 m height, he turned his head to the other side and said to me: Pfff – what are these rocks.
Fortunately we were not alone. Our first need for equipment, rafts and training according to international standards was supported for the first time by USAID and the American people.
After continuous and unstoppable efforts promoting the Skrapar area, accompanying friends, journalists, artists, athletes we managed to attract an infrastructure investment of the Albanian government saving visitors about a 2 hours ride to the canyon. From year to year we created an active and sustainable team with a wide network of local community, interconnecting several areas of Albania through different outdoor activities in nature such as canyon exploration, hiking, kayaking, mule caravan, visits to local wineries, etc. While all this is happening, I graduated in Law and thanks to various international exchange programs, I was able to pursue in-depth education in tourism and entrepreneurship. I spent a lot of energy, but everything turned backwards when I read the joy in the eyes of tourists, especially those Albanians, who would feel pride as I did!
Exactly at the moment when everything was getting the right shape it came one of the biggest challenges of my life. My canyon was in danger of being destroyed by the construction of 2 hydropower plants. I can tell you that in those moments I felt angry, hurt, offended. It was impossible to imagine that my 17 years of unstoppable dedication and of hundreds of enthusiasts and supporters of our activity would be destroyed together with me, one of the Natural Monuments of Albania. I can not say that it was easy to manage such an emergency situation. There were high financial interests of individuals after the projection of HPPs and powerful people. However, at one of the most critical moments, I remember taking a deep breath speaking to myself: Blerina, how many people in the world have been given the chance to protect a Canyon 3 million years old?
All of us, part of this turbulent history are passengers. The Canyon has been and should continue to remain there, magnificent and untouched for future generations to come. Within 1 week there was an unimaginable engagement and mobilization of public opinion, where the media, locals and all our visitors over the years became our voice and ear everywhere. Again the international community was there to provide us with technical and legal assistance to resolve the issue. And today the canyon is still there and untouched. Courage was necessary to face the opponents and when I had to stay close to friends. With courage I was able to realize the ideas and face the sudden changes. Time never goes back, it doesn’t wait for anyone and you can never change things by staying in the comfort zone.
After this experience I realized the transformative power of the tourism industry and gave more importance to the promotion of a wider level of responsible tourism, as one of the tools that not only brings economic development to the local community, but also to nature protection. and our heritage. For this reason with the volutnteering contributions of many artists, tourism entrepreneurs, active tourism fans, with the support of the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program we developed the international digital campaign Be Taken By Albania, which generated in less than 2 months 2 million views, 18 international articles and hundreds articles, chronicles and TV shows in the region. I can say that the campaign provoked a lot of debate about nature protection, the need to improve the country’s image, the need to change the wrong perception of Albania, but above all it informed us all that yes, Albania has lagoons full of flamingos and unimaginable natural treasures.
Entrepreneurship is the opportunity to change the world and the price of success is tireless work. I can say that to get here where I am today has been a journey full of emotions, challenges, crashes and resurrections. Sometimes it seemed like a fight with the windmills, but perseverance is all it takes. It has always been harder than I had anticipated. But I am fortunate to contribute and be part of great transformations in remote areas and to contribute to the well-being and joy of people in forgotten communities. This is my biggest motivation. We are always evolving and we are discovering ourselves and today I am here in front of you with a new initiative, Active Albania , that promotes authentic experiences of Albania and the region and supports responsible tourism initiatives. It is an innovative venture run 70% by girls, who are constantly committed on the basis of 3 principles: sustainability-sustainability-sustainability. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us of the importance of this word.
For every door that is open to me, I try to open my door to others. We should support each other. Maybe then we can start to have less fear, make fewer wrong assumptions, let go prejudices and stereotypes that divide us unnecessarily. There is the power to be heard, to tell our unique story, to use our authentic voice. We should be keen to know and listen more to each other. That, to me, is Becoming. This is my favourite part from the book of Michele Obama.
I want to tell everyone who has a dream to follow it. Work will always bring them to the surface. Do not let anyone tell you that you are not good enough or that your idea is not worthwhile. Because you are a girl or you do not come from the capital, you can not do it. Stay true and do not tire of improving yourself. Of course you can shine! Life is a journey of ups and downs, embrace the best around you, learn from your mistakes and become part of the positive changes for yourself, your family and your country. This is important. Be curious and do not forget to travel, as a trip can change your life!