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Families oppose demolition of Albania village for resort

Families oppose €40m scheme for Albanian resort

By Kerin Hope

February 23, 2009 

Arben Leka carefully unfolds a document brown with age and runs a finger down a handwritten list of landholdings that was drawn up in 1937. The Lekas are one of 129 families fighting the construction of Albania’s first five-star tourist resort.

The Tirana-based Riviera group wants to build an 800-bed resort at Kakome bay, an arc of white pebbles backed by olive trees, a swath of evergreen forest and the 13th-century convent of St Maria. The company has fenced off the bay and blocked access to the convent.

“We all have title deeds, we’re defending our ownership in the courts, yet bulldozers have moved in and we’ve lost access to our property,” says Mr Leka, a civil engineer.

Dritan Celaj, Riviera’s chairman, says Kakome is public land. His company was granted a 99-year lease in 2004 to develop the bay but the €40m ($51m, £35m) project was put on hold after protests by residents and a change of government.

Vladimir Kumi, mayor of Nivice village, 6km from Kakome, where most of the protesters live, says most families have three titles to their land. One dates from the 1870s when Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire, another was issued by the land registry set up by King Zog in the 1930s and a third covers the 1994 restitution of land collectivised under Communism.

Land-ownership disputes are rife along Albania’s mountainous southern coast, mainly because of its potential for development as one of the last unspoilt stretches of the Mediterranean. The restitution of land to pre-communist owners remains a thorny issue, with many claims still outstanding. A new land registry set up with the assistance of foreign experts has a long backlog of title deed applications.

Albania’s judicial system has been criticised by the European Commission as weak and open to influence, adding to the difficulties of settling a property dispute through the courts.

The protesters, who refer to themselves as “Club 129,” say they have no objection to the development of “soft” tourism at Kakome – small independent guesthouses or hotels – provided their ownership claims are recognised and they have a stake in the project.

The right-of-centre government of Sali Berisha, the prime minister, opposed the project while in opposition. Now it backs Mr Celaj,.

Ylli Pango, tourism minister, says the sector has been growing quickly, with a 60 per cent rise in arrivals last year to about 2m. “Most visitors come to Albania for inexpensive seaside holidays. But we need to develop a small number of high-quality resorts,” he says. “Kakome is one such example.”

Guests would fly to the Greek island of Corfu and cross a strait to Kakome by speedboat. Riviera plans to build an 800-bed, low-rise resort, which it says would create several hundred jobs. “Of course we’re going to offer jobs to local residents,” says Mr Celaj.

Most residents of Nivice left soon after the fall of communism to work in construction and tourism in Greece, leaving older people to tend the livestock and olive groves.

In summer the village population swells from about 400 to more than 2,000 as families return to renovate their houses and relax by the sea.

Thanks to contributions from its diaspora, Nivice raised €20,000 towards a World Bank-funded project to build a paved road and to bring running water to the village.

“Officials accuse us of abandoning our land and leaving the country,” says Vangeli Tsari. He worked for 10 years in hotels in Greece before returning to run the village café.

“In fact, we’re investing so that we can do tourism the way we want to.”