Albania plans Communist-era eco-tourist resort on neglected Cold War island

The tiny Adriatic island of Sazan is home to dense forests of pine, oleander and fig trees, one small beach, 3,500 nuclear blast shelters, an extensive tunnel network, a small subterranean town including cinema, school and hospital, and many fading Communist propaganda slogans.

If present development plans go ahead, it will soon also accommodate a unique Cold War eco-tourist development.

The 5.7-sq-km island used to be at the heart of the Albania’s military defence structure under the 46-year-long rule of Enver Hoxha and his successors.

An allegory of Communist Albania – beautiful but surrounded by barbed wire– Auron Tare, Albania Coastal Agency

Before then it was part of the Roman, Ottoman, British, Greek and Italian and German empires.

But after the fall of Albania’s Communist regime in 1991, it was briefly ruled by nobody at all, which is when all the island’s machinery, right down to the Italian coastal defence artillery, was stolen and sold for scrap.

Auron Tare, head of Albania’s Coastal Agency, told the Serbian Balkan Insight website: "Some wanted to turn the island into a casino while others wanted hotels. This debate has been raging for 20 years, and to put out end to it we brought a group from the US who specialise in gambling."

After the Americans ran the rule over Sazan and decided that the business case wasn’t there, a final decision was taken to turn the island into a destination for culturally curious eco-tourists.

"The idea was to open up the island as sort of natural museum, with its military bunkers as an allegory of Communist Albania – beautiful but surrounded by barbed wire," Tare said, while sitting in his make-shift headquarters set in a tent in the island’s port.

He is based there because the buildings that once housed some 3,500 soldiers and their civilian support workers has been reduced to a few abandoned ruins and a small Italian-Albanian naval base.

Tare envisages restoring the Hoxha-era propaganda slogans that covered the island and using the buildings as part of a Cold War hiking trail.

Sazan is presently under the management of Albania’s Coastal Agency, which is working with its French counterpart to create a development plan for the island. As well as accommodation for the expected tourists, there will be a nautical scientific research centre.

The plan is already being tested by offering day trips on two small tourists ships from the Albanian town of Vlorë.

According to Tare, during the first week that Sazan was opened to visitors, more than 600 paid the 12-euro fare to make the crossing to Albania’s recent past.

Photograph: The island of Sazan. Tours are already on offer for 12 euros … (Albinfo/Wikimedia Commons)

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