Few rivers in Europe still flow freely along their natural paths, unfettered by dams and large-scale development, but after Albania’s March 2023 designation of the Vjosa River National Park, at least one will remain that way. After a decade of campaigning by an unexpected coalition of activists—including outdoor retailer Patagonia, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and NGOs such as EcoAlbania and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the 170-mile-long Vjosa became the continent’s first wild river national park.
The Vjosa begins as the Aoös in the Pindus Mountains of northwestern Greece, winding across the border into southern Albania. Its fast-moving waters carve a path through high snow-capped mountains and irrigate the green fields of surrounding floodplains as they braid through smaller tributaries. Close to the Adriatic Sea, the Vjosa Basin encompasses natural hot springs, 500-year-old stone bridges, and the remains of ancient cities.
The Vjosa River National Park designation prohibits mining and dams across 32,000 acres of the river basin, an area home to more than 1,100 species of animals, 13 of which the IUCN considers globally threatened, including the Egyptian vulture and the Balkan lynx. It stops multiple proposed hydroelectric projects from moving forward, commits resources to tackling current water and land pollution, and prevents further deforestation. At a ceremony for the new park in March, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced an $80 million investment to stop wastewater from entering the river.
The international attention garnered by the creation of the park also carries huge potential for the country’s rapidly growing tourism industry. It opens the park for bird-watching, hiking, and adventure tourism along the canyons; swimming and human-powered boating along the river; and cultural tourism in local villages such as Smokthina, known for an Albanian folk music genre called polyphony.
“I cannot be more happy with the declaration by the Albanian government,” says Jonida Shano, the cofounder of Green Adventures into Albania (GAIA), a destination management service and tour operator focused on sustainable tourism. The regulations, if implemented and respected, not only protect fragile habitats, flora, and fauna, she says, “but also look out for the 100,000 people whose livelihoods, culture, and ways of life have been tied to a wild Vjosa for centuries.” That includes local shepherds, fishermen, subsistence farmers, and traditional villagers, many of whom have watched an exodus of younger people from the area as they search for jobs in larger cities and beyond.
At just 11,000 square miles, the entire Balkan nation is about the same size as Massachusetts. Fifty years of harsh communist dictatorship gave way to severe economic issues in the 1990s, leaving it Europe’s third-poorest country (in GDP per capita). But while it lacks cash, Albania holds massive wealth in the form of natural beauty and cultural attractions.
Word of Albania’s magnificent beaches, high mountain peaks, crowd-free Roman archaeological sites, and history museums is finally spreading, and tourism to the country is taking off: In 2022, 7.5 million people visited, a 32 percent increase from the previous year.
But the country’s small size and young industry leave it vulnerable to becoming overrun. “Albania literally does not have the space and, consequently, can never have an infrastructure to support and develop mass tourism,” says Shano, who hopes the Vjosa helps Albania focus on sustainable, low-impact forms of tourism. “Developing alternative types of tourism would give a boost to communities, especially in rural areas, as well as the economy as a whole.”
Prime Minister Rama seems to agree, noting at the park’s opening ceremony that national parks attract 20 percent more visitors than unprotected areas. He added, “Protecting an area does not mean that you enshrine it in isolation from the economy.”
But even as he announced the park, his government continued to push forward on another project that has long drawn outrage from environmental experts and seems at odds with the new protections for the Vjosa: a new international airport being built near the river’s mouth, slated to open in 2024 (currently, travelers fly into the capital Tirana, two hours away). The European Union delegation in Albania has said the airport’s location, just outside the city of Vlora on the Narta Lagoon, violates both international conventions and national laws regarding protection of biodiversity.
Combined with other concerns, such as the future of a half-built (and now stalled) hydropower station project on the river, it raises questions about the strength of the park’s protections, particularly if the international spotlight dims. “Some politicians want to keep the door open for development, and this puts the Vjosa in real danger,” says Shano. “Without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity.”
Around the continent, people are watching to see what happens: More than 1 million barriers block the flow of rivers throughout Europe, disrupting wildlife migration and damaging the surrounding land. Thousands of them are obsolete, no longer serving their purpose of providing power or irrigation. Last year, 325 were removed, and though dam removal is not part of the Vjosa protections, environmental groups continue pushing for more. “Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country,” said Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albania’s minister of Tourism and Environment, in a press release. “Maybe Albania does not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models of protecting biodiversity and natural assets.”
Naomi Tomky Naomi Tomky’s award-winning food and travel writing has been published by the New York Times, Food & Wine, and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Book.