Scouting Albania: Is This Europe’s New Trendy Riviera?

Scouting Albania Is This Europe’s New Trendy Riviera

I’ve never been anywhere as beautiful. It was almost a physical shock. A brass-knuckled punch to the gut that left me grasping for words.

After years of scouting for the world’s best-value real estate—first for International Living, and now as part of international real estate expert Ronan McMahon’s team—I’ve been to many stunning places.

Volcanic islands in the South Pacific are cool. I love old stone villages in Spain’s Pyrenees. I will not forget my first sight of Vietnam’s beaches…or sipping lattes in Borneo…or walking Tulum’s white sands down into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere…

But a recent trip to the most developed beach town on Europe’s hidden Riviera—75 miles of stunning Mediterranean coast—is now my answer to the question, "where’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?"

A hikers’ paradise, mountains crown this corner of Europe, and run right down to sparsely developed Mediterranean beaches. This place is almost undiscovered. I say "almost" because, although things are very ground floor and early days, I found significant signs this Riviera is being discovered.

Tourism is increasing year-on-year. It was growing at 12% annually pre-COVID. Skyscanner saw a 48% increase in flight bookings here for 2022 compared to 2019. And now this Riviera is the "hush hush" trendy destination for a European beach vacation with a difference.

The travel press are calling it southern Europe’s hottest destination. Where is it?

It’s in tiny Albania—a country that, by the way, loves Americans. I mean really loves Americans. People name their pets after U.S. presidents. Some folks fly the Stars and Stripes in their gardens. I’d heard that before I went, and I can confirm it as I saw the American flag proudly hoisted in several villages. U.S. citizens can stay in this little European country for a year without a visa and getting one after that seems pretty straightforward.

Sandwiched between Greece and Italy, farther down the coast from Montenegro, this is a stunningly beautiful country that was cut off from the world for decades by a communist dictatorship.

The regime collapsed in the 1990s and the country plunged into anarchy amid a giant web of Ponzi schemes that saw many citizens lose all their savings. The army simply dissolved, gangs ran amok. Ordinary people armed themselves or fled the country—thousands left to find work in Italy, England, and Germany.

From that chaos, a more stable Albania has now quietly emerged. One that’s been using World Bank money to pay for ambitious infrastructure projects that could open up the country and the Albanian Riviera to mass tourism.

The Albanian Riviera, a three-hour drive from the capital Tirana, runs from the UNESCO Heritage site of Butrint, a superb ancient city on the Greek border, up to Dhermi and the magnificent and daunting Llogara Pass—a series of mindboggling switchbacks winding up the side of a massive mountain.

Following the coast road from the town of Saranda to Dhermi—the length of the Albanian Riviera—takes about two hours. The views are spectacular, the beaches outstanding, and much of the central stretch is—as yet—undeveloped.

The best way to get to the Albanian Riviera is probably to fly to the Greek island of Corfu and catch the fast ferry—it takes just 30 minutes. (Corfu is well connected within Europe, a popular tourism destination in its own right.)

My pre-trip research had been tough going. I had some guidebooks and a few travelogues. But there wasn’t much by way of reliable stuff online, which shows you how undiscovered Albania still is. So I got off the ferry from Corfu, hired a car and driver…and headed up the coast.

Top Spots on the Albanian Riviera

Saranda is the biggest town on this Riviera and the main entry port from Corfu. It gets a big influx of tourists in the summer and it’s a patchwork of seafront hotels running back to apartment buildings. Planning has clearly been weak and some of the town is run-down, though there’s a big marina development underway, due for completion in 2027. I liked the new promenade and the beachfront cafés. I can see why Saranda is attracting digital nomads and European snowbirds, but it’s nowhere near as beautiful or intriguing as the less-developed places farther up the coast.

From Saranda it’s a 10-minute drive to Ksamil, a booming beach town of higglepiggle development around a series of pretty beaches and small islets. Ksamil is the closest point to the Greek island of Corfu, just two miles across the straits. It’s a cheerful place you can use as a base to explore the Butrint National Park, and where you’ll eat well, enjoy a few days on the beach.From chaos, a stable Albania is quietly emerging.Himare was my favorite beach town. An hour-and-a-half drive from Saranda, it’s a laidback, low-key sort of place with a family vibe. Himare gets direct ferries from Corfu in the summer season. The new promenade was pleasant, though the apartment blocks a little farther back reminded me of old buildings I’ve seen in Havana, with utilities fed through pipes in the windows and blackening facades.

At the northern tip of the Albanian Riviera, Dhermi is hip. Boutique hotels have popped up catering to a youthful set who come for a trendy music scene. The promenade and the boutique hotels are all shiny and new, and the beach is gorgeous.

In the hills above Dhermi, the old village is half-renovated. I was told that the hills are full of beautiful gems like this, abandoned villages waiting for someone with money and means. In Dhermi, a major Albanian developer has taken on the project (an ambitious one) and his crown jewel is the Zoe Hora boutique hotel—immaculate, stylish, and very new.

Weirdly, the hotel has no website. And this was something I noticed throughout my trip. None of the businesses associated with tourism had fully functioning websites. Some had none at all. It may be another sign of how "ground floor"everything is.

Tired of beaches, I took a detour into the mountains to check out one of Albania’s old Ottoman towns, and it did not disappoint. Gjirokaster seems to grow out of the mountains, "the city of stone." There’s a sprawling old citadel to explore, and a restored center given over to tourism with souvenirs and cafés. I found a new town parking lot under construction for the tour buses bringing daytrippers up from the coast and renovated old houses now operated as Airbnbs.

On the battlements of the castle at Gjirokaster, you can find a U.S. spy plane from the 1950s. The Albanians claimed they forced it down, the U.S. Air Force said the pilot strayed and ran into engine trouble…either way, the plane is now a memorial to the Cold War.

The Real Estate Scene

The purpose of my trip was to check out the real estate scene here. And while the breathtaking scenery and the general friendliness of the people had already made it a success…things got really interesting when I found a Path of Progress.

A Path of Progress is any major infrastructural event set to improve access to a locale—a new road, new airport, or a four-mile tunnel through the mountains set to bypass the dizzying Llogara mountain road. Work has begun, and this tunnel is due to cut the journey from Vlora to Dhermi—the northern startpoint of the Riviera—to just 20 minutes.

Work also began in 2021 on a new international airport in Vlora, which—if completed—would put this Riviera a short flight from the rest of Europe and beyond. There’s also talk of an airport at the southern end of this Riviera. And work is underway on a big marina—apparently the biggest such development in the Balkans.

Talk of big infrastructural projects in developing countries is often just that: Talk. And talk is cheap. It’s certainly not a finished road, tunnel, or airport. But I saw enough of those around the Albanian Riviera— finished roads and tunnels—along with new promenades in beach towns, to take the talk very seriously.

Is There Opportunity Here?

There’s clearly something happening along the Albanian Riviera…but does it equate to opportunity? Maybe.

Foreigners can buy property in Albania…but not land. However, you can set up an Albanian company that can buy the land. I spoke with Albanians who told me setting up a company takes a day.

But there’s the question of title. Before communism, a few powerful families owned a lot of the land here. With communism the state took ownership. And when I asked people who owned various parcels of land I saw, I got different answers depending on who I asked.

map showing albanian riviera

But what about buying existing property…an apartment, house, or a villa? Well, there are Italians, Dutch, Germans, and Poles doing just that. The Poles and Italians seem to be the biggest pool of buyers. If you’re wondering where Italians retire abroad, apparently, you’ll find a lot of them on the Albanian Riviera.

Prices are low. You can find apartments for well under $100,000. But I wouldn’t be keen on anything I saw. Sometimes cheap is just cheap and an apartment built to Albanian standards in the last few decades is nothing special. I thought the build quality was poor—not everything—but most of what I saw. I saw some strange stuff, like large villas overlooking the ocean but with most of the windows and terraces facing out other sides of the building…perhaps there’s an opportunity to buy something like this, demolish it and rebuild something special.

What about an old village house, something historic to renovate? That is an intriguing idea and one I’d dig into on a return trip to Albania. I expect that to do it successfully you’d need to get boots on the ground, spend time here, and get to know who owns what before considering making an offer.

Albania has a deserved reputation for corruption, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t do business there. Bottom line, there’s plenty to be figured out yet…but it definitely seems worth watching.

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