Outdoors

GRANTEE SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW: BLERINA AGO, FOUNDER OF ACTIVE ALBANIA

GRANTEE SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW: BLERINA AGO, FOUNDER OF ACTIVE ALBANIA FOR USAID, Economic Development, Governance and Enterprise Growth Project.

Blerina Ago is the founder of Active Albania. She is a tourism expert trainer, leading different initiatives bringing together local tourism communities for economic growth and sustainable development in the Balkans region of Europe. Blerina is known in the Western Balkans as a spokesperson and the organizer of many events for developing sustainable tourism and the preservation of nature’s ecosystems. She is distinguished for the development of eco and rural tourism products, the cooperation between tourism operators, the exchange of best practices worldwide and the contribution to the tourism activities local framework drafting.

Active Albania is a tour operator that provides unique adventure tours and active holidays in Albania and in the region connecting nature and culture with physical activity. To get started, could you tell us how you came up with the idea to establish Active Albania?

The decision to establish Active Albania came after many years of engagement in the adventure tourism industry. My experience in tourism started at the early age of 14, on the bank of the Osum River, where I had my first-ever rafting experience. The adrenaline rush and the magical scenery in the spectacular Osum Canyons had an impact on me for the next 18 years throughout my personal and professional journey. At the time that I began working in tourism, the news mentioned Albania only as an unsafe and troubled country. We didn’t have any knowledge or cultural development regarding the tourism sector. There was a total lack of infrastructure. We went through the challenge of creating everything from scratch. What pushed me to go on in this “crazy” initiative was precisely the visitors’ impression that gave me hope that Albania, a post-communist country, extremely poor and isolated for more than 45 years, would be transformed for the better through tourism.

From year to year, we created an active and sustainable team with a wide network of local communities, interconnecting several areas of Albania through different nature outdoor activities such as canyon exploration, hiking, kayaking, mule caravan, visits to local wineries, and more.

We offered mainly daily activities and all my team and the incomes were dependent on other tour operators — most of them in Albania — did not have a high interest in adventure tourism. So, we were suffering from seasonality and bad employment.

While all this was happening, I graduated in Law and thanks to various international exchange programs, like the Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative (YTILI), the U.S. Department of State’s flagship program for emerging entrepreneurs from Europe, I was able to pursue in-depth education in tourism and entrepreneurship.

During my YTILI experience, I gained the courage to build something more inclusive and sustainable that would generate more income for the local community, better employment for my team, more quality service for our guests, and full attention to nature preservation.

This is how Active Albania was created. It promotes authentic experiences of Albania and the region and supports responsible tourism initiatives. It is an innovative venture run by mostly women (70%), who are constantly committed to three principles: sustainability-sustainability-sustainability.

The purpose of Active Albania is to generate income through commercial activities, which helps to enhance standards across all adventure activities and raise the profile of the Balkans as an adventure tourism destination. What makes Active Albania unique in the travel market? What kind of products and services does Active Albania provide?

“Exciting” is probably the best single word to describe the Western Balkans. It is the perfect meeting of the natural environment, history, culture, cuisine, and people at their most immaculate — they all come together to form the ultimate destination for an adventure vacation. That is why we have actively pursued developing adventure tourism in the wild Vjosa River, Prespa and Ohrid Lakes, Durmitor National Park, in the Riviera, and into the majestic Alps. Our adventures explore this region diversely and authentically with local expert guides born and raised in the area. On no other trip would you pack raft, hike, bike, and snorkel as you circumnavigate the Butrinti Lake, or paddle to quiet villages in the Ohrid town, or escape the crowds in a few secret areas of the Via Ferrata in Peja.

Regional Trekking Training in Galicica National Park, North Macedonia

On an Active Albania trip, you’ll spend more time in the outdoors, in tiny mountain villages, and immersing yourself in spectacular areas than you will be sitting in a vehicle. It’s all up to you to get to the next incredible place under your own steam.

With so much to see and take in, we have made sure to take care of the logistics, leaving you to packraft, hike, bike, and take in the hundreds of years of history, culture, and cuisine that makes the Western Balkans the ultimate adventure holiday.

Local knowledge makes a huge difference when looking at an adventure trip. With our local teams, contacts, and connections we get to explore a few places that fly under the radar. Sit atop a ridge in the Rugova Canyon, pull into a small cove while sea kayaking on Skadar Lake National Park, pack raft the magical Vjosa river while soaking in the culinary of the Permet region, hike the National Park of Galicica… It is these experiences we have crafted with on-the-ground knowledge and expertise, ensuring you will go home having seen the real magic of the Western Balkans.

You will experience great hikes, rides, and paddling in small groups, meaning you will experience Albania and its neighboring countries in a genuine, relaxed, and active manner.

As one of the USAID EDGE grantees, together with your partners from Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, you are implementing the Embrace Balkans Adventure project which aims to increase tour operator offers for inbound tourism. What kind of activities are being implemented to achieve these goals?

COVID-19 brought the tourism sector to its knees and the implementation of the Embrace Balkans Adventure project was a huge challenge. Beyond problems, we started to understand what opportunities this global crisis would bring in the future to tourism. Thanks to the support of the USAID Economic Development, Governance, and Enterprise Growth Project we had in-depth training on the hospitality and tour leading in adventure tourism with international experts of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. The modules discussed the tourism crises implications and the changing dynamics on the global marketplace. It offered a more detailed look at what will be the much expected New Normal after the end of the pandemic and how it will change the way tourism businesses operate. Part of the discussion focuses on how the post-COVID-19 traveler is going to be different, how service providers should prepare to meet their needs and expectations, how customer culture will be more important than ever and how their partnership and distribution networks are likely to adapt.

Active Albania in collaboration with its partners World Rafting Federation, Montalb, Webgliders, and BLT Podgorica organized two regional structural trainings in rafting and trekking. The purpose of the trainings in the Vjosa river area and between Ohrid and Prespa lake was to provide participants with general education and training in accordance with international standards (UIML & WRF) and best and safest mountaineering and rafting practices. We supported the University of Sports in Tirana, Faculty of Physical Activity and Recreation to develop training curricula under the standards of the World Rafting Federation. As a result, The Ministry of Tourism and Environment of Albania issued the certificates for rafting guides after the training course provided from the University, contributing to the growth of professional tour guides services and standards. With the team of Embrace Balkans Adventure, Active Albania redesigned a regional tourism product to respond to COVID-19 including pack rafting, hiking, and cycling adventures:

· To help our guests during our tours to follow and respect safety and health protocols;

· To minimize the carbon footprint of our activities by providing ecological adventures and reducing environmental carbon dioxide emissions;

· Because they love participating, they engage the locals in every segment of our active holidays.

Rafting Training in Vjosa River.

After this intervention, we provided tour operators and tourism guides with in-depth knowledge on online marketing and sales. In times of crisis, the communication and marketing changes the tone and social media channels turn into the most important media for our business. This is why Active Albania is developing three digital campaigns to raise the region profile as an adventure tourism destination and to help local businesses generate income, which will help to raise standards in all tourism activities.

All activities were hosted by 64 tourism professionals from Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, independent tourism guides and representatives from 18 regional tour operators.

Without a doubt, the tourism industry is among the sectors most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the travel industry is expected to slowly recover, what are the expected developments of Active Albania? How is Active Albania preparing for the post-COVID period?

All the activities that are implemented thanks to the support of USAID Economic Development, Governance, and Enterprise Growth Project were tailor-made to prepare Active Albania and the partners from the region to respond to the crisis and be ready for the New Normal. During March 2021, eight tour operators from Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo were part of the virtual event Adventure ELEVATE Europe organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). The presentations and interactive discussions were focused on moving the industry forward with a regenerative eye in order to build healthy and future-proof tourism. The mix of practical and interactive sessions, virtual adventures and keynotes — all with sustainability at the core, inspired the entire travel community: from small business owners to professional guides to destination representatives, and other industry partners. The experience of this ATTA event (in-person or virtual) had a strong emphasis on enhancing a partners network supporting the B2B segment.

Our expectation now that borders are slowly opening is to have the opportunity to welcome adventure travelers from the region and Europe and restart with better tourism.

Also, very important for us is to continue the regional cooperation with partners in North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro so that together, we can provide a more competitive and attractive tourism offer to international tourists.

Last but not least, being a successful female entrepreneur for over 20 years in the adventure travel industry, what are some of the challenges that female founders and leaders in the region still face today? What would you recommend to other women who want to start their own business?

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, it 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. Yet, I am fortunate to 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. 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 city, you cannot do it. Stay true to yourself and do not get tired 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 travelling can change your life!

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