In-depth | Albania

Trouble at sea

By - 28.08.2017

Summer deaths cause concerns over Albanian beach safety.

Official data suggests that every year more and more foreign tourists are choosing Albania and its 300 km long coastline as a holiday destination. However, stories about beautiful beaches and hospitable people, are being overshadowed by safety concerns after seven people died in the sea during one tragic week at the end of July this year.

These incidents have led to a large debate in Albania, mostly on social media, about the need to have more information for tourists on its beaches, and questions over the lack of  lifeguards across the coast.

So far, reaction from officials has been muted, and any clear cut steps being taken to make holidaying in Albania safer have not been given a high profile.

A tragic week at the seaside

From July 15-21, Albanian and social media were covered with distressing stories of a series of incidents at the beach with many wondering if they could have been prevented if lifeguards had been present. To add to the tragedy, almost all of the people who drowned were young.

On July 15, three people drowned at Zvernec Beach, near the southern town of Vlora. Two Albanian women, cousins, one 25 and the other 27 years old, faced difficulties while swimming because of choppy waters. As they shouted for help, Benjamin Ferhati (24), from Tetovo in Macedonia, tried to save them.

It is believed that he rescued the 25-year-old and brought her to the beach before returning to the sea to assist the other swimmer, who continued calling for help. Neither her nor Ferhati made it back to shore, while the first woman died later.

Sadly, it was not the end of tragic events that day. Nearby to the first incident, a couple of hours later, a 14-year-old boy from Albania was rescued from the sea and taken to hospital, but was unable to be resuscitated.

This summer, the Albanian coastline has been the scene of many tragic losses of life. Photo: Merxhan Daci.

The tragic week continued. Five days after the first tragedy, a 35-year-old man from Kosovo lost his life near the beach of Velipoja, on the north-western seashore. According to the police, the man entered the water to save his wife as she was in danger, but perished in his rescue attempt, while the woman survived.

A day later, a 15-year-old girl from Russia drowned at the beach in Ksamil. She went swimming with her mom, but the two became separated. The teenager’s body was found later by a beach cleaner. It is believed that she was hit by a boat, but the cause of death is yet to be confirmed. Nevertheless, after the tragedy occurred, a local in Ksamil was arrested on suspicion of hitting the girl with his boat.

Later, on July 21, a 66-year-old Slovak tourist lost his life at Golem Beach in Durres. According to Police, he had been swimming when he had a heart attack, and he was unable to make it back to the shore.

Authorities remain silent

According to the existing Law on Tourism, introduced in 2015, any person or company who uses the beach for enterprise, must have a contract with the competent public authorities (in this case the local municipality) and must fulfil conditions set by the Council of Ministers. In 2016, the Council of Ministers set rules confirming that lifeguards are a legal obligation in Albania, as are watchtowers, which should be installed every 200-250 meters on every beach.

The rules also state that the watchtowers should have a lifeguard that is qualified and trained “to save lives and able to give first aid.” The guard should be employed by the administrators of the beach, meaning either the municipalities in the case of public beaches, or any businesses that are using the beach, such as restaurants or bars. Lifeguards must be present throughout the tourist season, which lasts until September 30.

The two main national institutions that should be responsible for this area are the National Coastal Agency and the Ministry of Economic Development, Tourism, Trade and Entrepreneurship, who both have competencies over the management of the coast.

Over the last couple of weeks, K2.0 tried to reach officials at the National Coastal Agency, but in their email reply, the organization advised that it was the Ministry who should be contacted. The Ministry failed to reply to K2.0’s inquiries.

However, speaking to local media, Auron Tare, the head of National Coastal Agency, said that the institution he leads only managed the coast for a year, before going on to state that local municipalities have requested to manage their coast themselves. “Municipalities have insisted on managing the coastline and the Ministry has agreed,” Tare revealed. “Questions over safety at the beach should be raised with the municipalities.”

K2.0 tried to contact the municipalities where these incidents happened, but received no reply.

Missing lifeguards

In 2014, the National Coastal Agency made an agreement with the Montenegrin government for 41 students to be trained that year, and certified as lifeguards. The year after, these newly trained lifeguards were visible all over Albania, before disappearing.

A few hours after the three deaths in Zvernec, Tare reminded the public of this project through a local TV channel, stating that the first year after the training, the lifeguards were in the field, but then the responsibility for their employment was transferred from the Agency to local municipalities and the beach administrators, at which point they disappeared.

“We trained Albanian students at the Academy of Sports in Montenegro. We certified them to EU standards, sent them out into the field and there were concrete results. Many beach-goers lives were saved,” Tare stated. “It is the duty of the municipalities to refuse permission to people or businesses who don’t obey the criteria and standards. Security at the beach is the most important point.”

While Saranda has a contract in place to ensure lifeguards are present on its public beach, other beaches in Saranda and in many other coastal municipalities seem to have failed to provide the service. Photo: Municipality of Saranda.

Nikolin Mane, a representative from “Lifeguard Albania,” a private certified center for lifeguard training that has been functional since 2007, told K2.0 that they have working contracts with some municipalities across the coast, including for the public beach in Saranda.

“The government needs us,” Mane said. “The Ministry has called us several times because there have been many drownings recently. They haven’t been able to oversee this problematic situation. We have tried to cover the coast with professional lifeguards, and there is no other center (public or private) which can do the same job.”

Mane told K2.0 that lifeguards work for almost symbolic compensation, paid by the municipalities in the rare instances they are hired. “Their salaries are ridiculous,” he said. “This year our lifeguards are being paid 30,000 lek, or approximately 230 euros per month.”

Rama’s remorse and temporary solutions

Prime Minister Edi Rama has also spoken about the incidents on his Facebook profile, engaging in conversation with people who asked him questions about safety at the Albanian coast. In one of his answers he wrote that his government hold no responsibility for the absence of lifeguards, as the beach at Vlora, according to him, was considered to be “wild” rather than an “ordinary” beach.

“The part of the Vlora seaside where the unfortunate incident with the small boy happened is not in use by the municipality as a public beach, nor did the municipality give it to private companies,” Rama wrote, adding that there is a construction site close to this beach.

“The beach where the triple accident occurred is also a wild beach, which does not feature on the list of beaches approved by the Ministry, and, as a result, like in any other country in the world, when unfortunately such tragedies happen, there is no obligation to have lifeguards,” he concluded.

In Durres, a district with a 60 km long coast, there appears to be no certified lifeguard.

Rama did not mention the general absence of trained lifeguards in any of his comments, or mention any of the other incidents at other beaches. He has faced criticism on this issue throughout the summer, especially when sharing the positive opinions on Albania from foreign tourists on his social media profiles.

On their official webpage, the National Coastal Agency acknowledges that there are no lifeguards at certified beach across the country, and that the number of watchtowers is limited. For instance, in Durres, a district with a 60 km long coast, there appears to be no certified lifeguard.

After this summer’s incidents, bowing to public pressure, the municipalities of Saranda and Durres have built watchtowers. In Durres, the municipality set a deadline of July 31 for beach administrators to build watchtowers and employ lifeguards but the situation seems not to have changed, while even those newly built watchtowers have no lifeguards. No one from these two municipalities replied to K2.0’s questions

After the incident in Ksamil, police stopped all jetskis and boats from sailing around the beaches, as they were considered a possible threat to beach-goers. However, this police activity was only carried out for around three weeks.

After that, the boats returned, though with some extra security measures, such as separated  boat corridors through the existing designated swimming areas. However with no lifeguards, there was still nobody to monitor whether the designated boat and swimming areas were being observed.

Gentian Mullaj, the head of communication at the State Police, told K2.0 that across the country in this tourist season they have intervened in 75 cases where beach-goers’ lives have been in danger, and have stopped dozens of boats and jetskis.

“We have arrested two people in relation to incidents caused by motorboats, confiscated 33 boats across the coast and stopped dozens of others until the security measures were put in place by the responsible institutions,” he said.

A safer future

Safety concerns could put a dent in Albania’s nascent tourism industry, with statistics showing that holidaymakers from Kosovo to Albania were down 30 percent this July.

But despite all this, many tourists still feel safe in Albania. One of them, Ian Angelov from Bulgaria, spends his vacation in Saranda, the most visited city in the south of the country.

“I am one of the many Bulgarians to come to Albania for holidays since we heard of the stunning beaches and delicious food,” he said, adding that he really likes staying in Albania but that it could be much better if there were more safety regulations in coastal cities like Saranda, Vlora and Durres.

“I have seen many people from Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Poland here and this makes me believe that Albania is a great travel destination and we will of course come back. Let’s hope next year with more lifeguards,” he concluded.

Blerim Qato, a local in Durres who has a small business, told K2.0 that he has seen cases where tourists needed help at the beach, but only ordinary beach-goers and locals were there to help. “This shouldn’t happen anymore,” he said.

Public institutions are claiming that they are investing in tourism, and that this sector is in progress. But incidents that occurred in just one week, as well as many others, have revealed that Albania’s beaches are not always safe, while no institution appears to be taking responsibility for the lack of precautions that could have prevented these tragedies.K

Feature image: Nidzara Ahmetasevic / K2.0.