Laura Payne, co-founder of Outdoor Albania and a local travel activist, believes that travelling is all about meeting and connecting with locals and experiencing their cultures – bringing real economic benefits to those who need it most.
Laura paid her first visit to Albania six years ago and immediately fell in love with the country’s spectacular scenery. She visited beautiful deserted beaches in the south of the nation, where she got to know the passionate people, and rugged mountain ranges in the north, where she connected with hospitable locals. Travelling through the country she saw the enormous potential for tourism that Albania had and was particularly drawn to the Albanian Alps. Realising that most residents would not have the means to promote Albania’s outdoor opportunities to travellers from abroad, she decided that she wanted to do something for the locals.
Opening up the North
Together with her Albanian partner, Gent, Laura started Outdoor Albania, a tour operator specialising in sustainable travel. From the beginning, their aim has been to give their clients a ‘life-seeing’ experience rather than a sightseeing excursion. For the past five years, they have focused mainly on promoting the Albanian Alps and the North. This pristine area has hardly changed over the last 50 years due to its rugged landscape, which kept much of it isolated throughout the 500-year occupation by the Ottoman Empire, the Italian invasion of 1939 and many years of communist rule. Thanks to a network of local families who run village homes and guesthouses, Outdoor Albania now leads travellers to the heart of this amazing and untouched region.
One of Laura’s favourite places in northern Albania is Thethi, a village surrounded by mountains, rough limestone formations, dense forests, canyons and waterfalls. The harsh natural environment has always made living here hard for the locals, but you wouldn’t know this from their warmth and hospitality.
A Real Local Connection
One of the families in Outdoor Albania’s Thethi network is the Carku family. A woman by the name of None Age – also known as Mother Carku – operates a village house along with her son Mehill and his wife Valbona. For an experience of Albanian culture and rural life, there is nothing like an overnight stay at their Carku Guesthouse or other village homes, like the Terthorja Guesthouse, as it helps locals earn an income through community-based tourism. To Laura, a stay in a village home ensures a unique cultural experience and guarantees that the money spent goes directly to those who need it.
When entering the traditional stone house of the Carku or another family, all guests are welcomed warmly. At the Carku Guesthouse, while guests appreciate the fragrance of thick pinewood planks and sip homemade raki in the garden, Mother Carku prepares a delicious meal with fresh home-grown vegetables and home-baked bread.
Unique to the Carku village house is that it was the first to open its doors to visitors during the late 1990s, when the community tourism projects were initiated. The guesthouse became a regular meeting place for locals to share their experiences and visions for the future. Serving as an example, the Carku family has been able to demonstrate to the community the immense potential it has to offer.
An Eye for Nature Preservation
Next to meeting local people and experiencing their culture, Laura believes that preserving nature is a fundamentally important aspect of local travel. Consequently, Outdoor Albania endeavours to make tours nature-friendly, always striving to promote protection of landscapes, bio-habitats, traditions and monuments. Furthermore, they provide environmental education for local inhabitants, committing them to the protection of their natural and cultural heritage.
Laura and Gent try to involve as many local residents as possible in their business, using local guides, winemakers, drivers and porters on all of Outdoor Albania’s tours. They have also started the Outdoor Albania Association to implement a wide range of sustainable tourism projects.
Laura enjoys collaborating with the locals she meets and seeing the small benefits brought to them through community tourism initiatives. She loves hearing the enthusiastic, colourful, and amusing stories of her guests after a tour or a stay in one of the village houses. For her, local travel became the way to show visitors the ‘real’ Albania, a country with a stunning natural environment, ancient culture and rich national heritage.