Western Balkans: The Fight for a Sustainable Future

September 21 2018

Developing regions worldwide are struggling to retain their identities while coping with the global surge in tourism. The western Balkans are on the front line of this battle.

Mass tourism is already transforming and degrading parts of Montenegro and Albania. Yet beautiful but impoverished rural areas in these countries actually need more visitors. Can residents there do tourism in a way that preserves the true soul of the Balkans?

September 21 2018

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Mission Underway

Jack Delf moved from London to Montenegro with his wife and business partner fourteen years ago, after they fell in love with the Western Balkans. Together they founded a successful travel company in Montenegro which now works throughout the Western Balkans.

In 2005 he was looking for somewhere to set up an adventure travel company and recognized the incredible potential of this region, with its amazing landscapes, the best biodiversity in Europe, its unique cultural diversity and the genuine warmth and welcome of its people.

As a director of one of the first adventure travel companies in the region, most of Jack's early work involved training and supporting other small businesses, local entrepreneurs, and community associations to create and supply travel experiences for his guests.

Now that his company is established he spends the majority of his time as a sustainable tourism consultant for USAID, the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the United National Development Program and others, helping to protect destinations which face the challenge of developing sustainable tourism in competition with pressures from mass tourism.

"I believe that big tourism is an incredibly destructive industry that puts profit before people and causes a great deal of harm. What concerns me most is that 'big tourism' seems to promise so much to host communities but in reality the people who live in these beautiful destinations risk losing everything, their culture, the natural beauty of their surroundings, ownership and even access to the places where they have always lived. Look at developed destinations, all the best places are now foreign owned. Large scale resort developments usually bring a small return to local people and also often destroy the very things that we travel for. Local communities are lost. I've always been a passionate traveler and it breaks my heart to go back to places that have now been built over with hotels, parking lots and gas stations. The essence of these places, the things which once made them amazing are often lost forever. I don't want to see that happen to the Western Balkans.

Watch the video below and hear from Jack about the challenges of developing sustainable tourism that values the protection of the nature and culture of this incredible region while benefitting the the local communities; the classic definition of geotourism.

A personal perspective of the soul of Nivicë.
The Nivica Project houses two small villages in Albania that seek the connection of other sites with the country, the settlements are: Nivicë and Rexhina. To talk about these places there must be an explanation of history, orography, climates, fauna, flora and sublime landscapes. This is because Nivicë is located in the Kurvelesh region, which is part of the Mali I Gribë mountain range, one of the highest peaks of these southern mountains.

The mountains provide a magic to everyday life in Nivicë: "Awakening in this place is to return to the past, to the origins of humanity, regardless of nationality, skin color or language, Nivicë invites you to return to the past." - Petrit, local villager (Translated to English by Vilson, one of our guides).

How is the current sustainability of this place? The hours are long and pleasant in Nivicë. Its inhabitants get up early to milk cows, make dairy products, bake bread, distill a local beverage made out of grapes called Raki and prepare the meals of the day. "Everything is organic, everything is homemade, there are no pesticides." – Dyshe, local villager. (Translated to English by Vilson)

The families here are self-sufficient. In the same yard the vegetables grow and the chickens, cows and goats live. This is how they show us that nothing else is necessary. No supermarket, pharmacy nor stores are nearby, "no, there's nothing like that until Tepelenë that is about an hour and a half away" - Vilson, guide.

And everything is fine without the "comforts" of today's world? No, it's more than good, it's perfect. The inhabitants of Nivicë are the clear example that quality of life comes with tranquility, peace and dedication to the care of their land.

A traveler can preserve this by embracing local culture that is lived, "It is important to conduct yourself in Nivicë understanding that money is not the currency of exchange. If a villager invites you to his house, you must give something of yourself to him, of your region. This is how it has worked for centuries, we do not to want to alter it", Auron Tare, Nivica Project’s Director, tells me after an invaluable approach I had with the residents Dyshe and Petrit.

When an elderly woman invited me to her house, she received me with sweets, drinks and hugs. I could understand through her eyes that it was not necessary for me to speak her language or for her to understand my words. We were united by human kindness.

The soul of Nivicë is found in its people, in the traditions and care that they have towards the land that saw them born and today take cares for them. If you ever come, do not forget this, please respect and embrace it´s simplicity.

Dyshe and Petrit`s Bed and Breakfast is named “House on Canyon” and you can find it www.guesthousecanyon.al

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Dallendyshe and Petrit Merjo owned a home in Nivicë but moved away in the early 1990's when the village was abandoned. Though they still owned their home in Nivicë, they lived in a town called Vlorë. In 2017 when Auron Tare started the Nivicë project, he approached them with the new plan of renovating Nivicë and the idea of Dallendyshe and Petrit returning to open a B & B. Auron spoke with them about the benefits of tourism and small business. Though they were scared in the beginning, they believed in the opportunity.

Auron helped them to receive basic training of running a B&B, were taken to see how other guest houses were run around the country, and did light renovation on their home which they now call 'Mejro House on the Canyon' where guests would be staying.

Now, they love that they are able to live back in their home and village in the mountains where it is quiet and peaceful. They are a model of sustainability making their own bread, butter and cooking with vegetables from their garden behind their home along the cliff's edge.

Meet Dallendyshe and Petrit Merjo in the video below and fall in love with them like we have.

The area where we're traveling was called the Epirus region in ancient times. We're less than 100 kilometers away from the Acheron River which extends along the border of southern Albania border and northwestern Greece. In ancient Greek mythology, Acheron was known as the "river of woe", and was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. Charon or Kharon was the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly deceased across the Acheron river that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Nivicë, the small, mountainous village where we're staying is full of ancient beliefs which even Christianity and Islam have not managed to wash away or destroy completely. People in this region still believe in the evil eye, fairies, thunder, and the sacred oaks. It's not witchcraft but an ancient belief the people here still hang on to today.

Listen to Auron's words under our videographer's post below.

In filming this I used my Osmo because the entrance to the forest needed smoother visuals. Some 150 meters on my walk, I discovered the actual place where people do sacrifices and light candles. It appeared some folks had just left as I filmed a freshly killed chicken and candles still burning in the small shrine. On the center of the hill was a clearing, with a burned oak in the middle. It had to be the place to fly the drone away in a cenital shot, wait for it... it's awesome.

After a drive from the busy streets of Tirana, we reached the mountain region of the south, not far from the coastline. We journeyed through beautiful landscape touched by history along the way. After crossing river Vjosa (Ancient Aoss), the only free river in Europe, we entered the remote mountain region, passing goat and sheep herds with bells making music along the hillsides. We arrived late into the small, once abandoned village of Nivicë.

The Nivicë project for Auron Tare, project coordinator, this is a personal endeavor, passion, and challenge to create a model for sustainable tourism. Click the video to hear from Auron himself.

Keep watching our exploration into ancient trails bringing new life to southern Albania.

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This is very inspiring... I would like to find out more about the Nivica project. It's always a debate when you open an area to tourism, whether this will be have a positive or negative impact, and I think the answer is that if it is managed carefully then it can be positive, but has to be done in the right way... and that is not always easy to do... however tourism can play a positive role in helping people preserve their customs and traditions which might otherwise die out.

Preparation Stage

Hi World! 🌎
Here we are, three explorers wanting to understand three countries and one objective: their sustainability.

We’re not sure what we’ll see but what we‘re sure about is with this minimal gear we'll maximize our efforts.

What do you think we'll find?

What would you like to know through our expedition?

Follow us! This adventure is about to begin.

Expedition Background

The global surge in tourism growth is so out of control in places that it has spawned a new term: overtourism. In the western Balkans, natural, historic, and cultural sites are now at risk from unconstrained, insensitive development. The coastlines of Montenegro and Albania are already succumbing to crass commercialization. World Heritage sites like the Greco-Roman ruins of Butrint, Albania, must contend with swelling, uncontrolled numbers of sightseers.

Yet tourism, if done well, has much to offer both residents and visitors in these countries. Well-managed tourism can help fund preservation and conservation of World Heritage sites, even cultural landscapes. Struggling rural places such as Nivica, Albania, want the kind of tourism that’s responsible, educational, and mutually beneficial.

I’m a video producer who’s been exploring and telling stories of people working to protect the planet since 2007. Teaming up with Jonathan Tourtellot, originator of the geotourism approach and director of the Destination Stewardship Center, I work to share inspiring stories of people working to protect their nature, culture and heritage around the world. Geotourism as defined via National Geographic refers to “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place.”

Our expedition in the western Balkans seeks to find out and video what’s working and what isn’t—the places that are lost, the ones that are threatened, and those where tourism offers opportunity. In Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and possibly Kosovo, we’ll interview the heroes who fight to keep these places authentic and make tourism constructive, not destructive.

Our research goal: Find out whether they can help save unspoiled areas of the western Balkans before it’s too late.

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