Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Auron Tare: Albania's Bill Bradley

Auron Tare is that rare, almost extinct breed of politician who answers his own emails, gives direct answers, and inspires respect. I met him—all 6’4’’ inches, in a still athletic frame—for the first time on a rainy December Monday in a cafe. Tare came in jeans, a North Face jacket, and hiking shoes. Throughout the conversation (edited below for clarity and space), two themes arose: be authentic and differentiate yourself through excellent service.

On Travel and Tourism

Tare: With tourism, it is how you present it to the public, and how well you present it publicly.

Me: Has Albania done a good job attracting tourists?

Tare: The foreign market has done a great job discovering us. We don’t have a large tourism budget and have not engaged in widespread marketing. We need to be more niche-oriented and not seek to attend all the larger fairs. Attracting the right kind of the market is the key to developing something different. 

Me: What can Albania do better?

Tare: Many things, but to start, we should focus on incremental improvements, which are very important. First, good professional guiding [aka tour guides]. Second, train the taxi drivers. When I go to London or America, I know I am not going to be cheated. The first contact for visitors when they arrive should be a professional experience.

Me: How do you change the culture, which tilts towards inertia or short-term thinking? And how do you compete for the same tourist dollars as much larger countries?

Tare: Simple. Get a program of 30 people. Explain the program. Install good customer service. Explain the concept: the better you are, the more business you are going to get. Don’t cheat the tourists. Put on some cologne, perfume. Speak some English. Say a few nice words. When the passenger hails a taxi, get out of the car, take the bags, open the door, close the door, and so on. Here, some airport taxis tried charging 50 USD when 20 USD is normal fare to the city centre. When you arrive, the taxi is usually your first impression, and we want your first impression to be good and we want you to feel welcome. It’s a simple thing. [That 30 USD gap, is it worth destroying the tourist’s first impression of us?]

[Remember] Where are we? We are surrounded by Turkey, Greece, Italy. We are a small country. How can we compete? We have to improve the product. We have to have nice signs, nice guides.  We have to make people feel good. We want a more authentic feeling. That is how we are going to compete. 

Me: It’s interesting you mention tour guides. I went to a travel agency, and they only had packages for foreign destinations like Montenegro. I could not find anything for Shkroda or Gjirokaster.

Tare: [shakes his head] Tour guides and tourism itself need a lot of attention. Tourism can be one of the possibilities for economic development for a country like Albania. People here think tourism is something that happens [only] in June, July, August. No one thinks you have to work in the winter to prepare yourself for the summer.

Me: What do you think about Uber?

Tare: I think nothing. I see a general approach in raising the level of taxi drivers.

Me: Like you said, you are a small country. Uber won’t come by itself because it’s not cost-effective. I believe the UAE, probably the world’s best marketer in tourism, created its own taxi hailing app before allowing Uber. As a tourist, I feel much more comfortable if there is a ride-hailing app.

Tare: [nods acknowledgment]

On UNESCO and His Work with UNESCO

Tare: Albania has three UNESCO sites. One I created: Butrint National Park. The others are Gjirokaster and Berat, both of which have castles. Berat has an interesting combination of Ottoman and Byzantine influence in one place.

Me: How can I get there from Tirana?

Tare: Get a cab, bus, or minibus. I can send you the info.

Me: Please do. What is the process for designating a UNESCO site?

Tare: It is a long process, a very bureaucratic process. We approach it from different angles.

Me: How long does it take create one [a UNESCO site]?

Tare: A few years. You don’t “create” a site—the main reason for UNESCO is to try to protect the site. If it has universal value, then you approach UNESCO. The idea is to protect and save the place.

Me: What are the benefits of UNESCO? Do you provide experts? Funding?

Tare: Yes, the UN gives experts. A delegation comes. UNESCO provides professional expertise. You might get some money but that’s not the point. You need to do a great job yourself and make the site work well. Don’t depend on UNESCO, because the most important goal is to be self-sustaining. That is the ultimate goal: the site is to be self-sustaining.

Me: How do you make a site sustainable? So many so-called tourist spots have inadequate signs or background about a place, even in popular destinations like Turkey.

Tare: It’s management. Turkey has some nice sites. In fact, it has a lot. Money is not enough. I work very hard to make a site independent so a site works without any state-funded budget. We want a situation where you don’t care about UN or UNESCO because it functions well.

Me: But doesn’t a restoration cost a lot of money?

Tare: [In many cases,] It is not necessary to restore. What you do is preserve it. We conserve it. We present it. We make it a delightful experience. The moment you start putting too much restoration, you lose the charm, you lose the authenticity. Have you been to Niagara Falls?

Me: Yes, the Canadian side. I loved it. It’s one of my favorite travel experiences, breathing in the air.

Tare: It is disgusting.

Me: Wait, the Falls itself, or what is around the Falls?

Tare: The stores around it, the tourist center. It is cheesy. It is all for money. It’s disgusting.

Me: Ah, you mean the generic stores and kitsch a few blocks from the Falls. Yes, I agree.

Tare: Mass tourism destroys the beauty of nature. There’s a casino there—it is disgusting. Everyone falls into this trap. Everyone wants to imitate.

Me: How do you prevent the tourist trap?

Tare: There is big difference between traveling and tourism. Either you are a tourist or you are a traveler. If you are a traveler, you go to a place for the experience, to enrich yourself. Unfortunately, in the last half of the 20th century, mass tourism happened. In mass tourism, no one goes to eat local food, to meet local people or local tribes. Now what you do, you go, you stay in the same Sheraton hotel. Tourism and traveling are different concepts.

Me: Interesting statement from a man who said tourism could be the driver for economic development, but you are right. Everywhere I go, I see the same block signs with the city name, the same kiosks, the same food trucks… those Christmas kiosks out there? I just saw the same concept in Vienna, but on a larger scale.

Tare: I’m a romantic. I know it’s not going to happen, that we only get travelers here. Even so, we have to be careful in not making the same mistakes with tourism as other countries. Mass tourism has destroyed Greece, it has destroyed many cities, and it will destroy here as well.

Me: How do you stop mass tourism from destroying a country and how do you get travelers to come?

Tare: There are not that many travelers left. That is why we have to focus on tourism. The challenge is how to improve the tourism experience. People who go somewhere without understanding where they are, they are tourists—it’s not done in the traveling sense. There’s no spiritual experience. People in Michigan can go to Florida and then go to Europe, and they’ll have no idea they’ve left the USA. They travel in a bubble. They pay with the same Visa, stay at a Sheraton, eat at a McDonald’s. They are attached to it because it is safe, it is like home. How did it get this way? It is the centralization created by mass tourism.

Mass tourism has destroyed the environment, the culture. It is not easy to do it [travel] right. I like the Scandinavian model: fewer people, better quality.

Me: Wait, Iceland is drowning in tourists. They went with a cheap airfare strategy, and they are getting many, many tourists.

Tare: Norway is holding out for fewer [but higher quality] people. With cheap travel, you get hordes of people. These people still think they are in England when they visit Greece, for example. They drink the same beer, they watch the same football matches.
From Rachael Weiss' Me, Myself & Prague (2008)
They don’t manage to get the experience. Tourism is corrupting the soul, destroying the environment. It is very important to create a balance. You cannot sell a country because it is cheap. You cannot say, “Come to my country because it is cheap. Cheap means sh*t.”

Me: But one of the reasons we have “tourism” is because people, especially young people, can only afford to visit a place for two or three days. The more expensive a place, the fewer days most people can stay.

Tare: I’ve stayed in tents, I’ve hitchhiked. I had 60 bucks in my pocket and I visited 5 countries. You have to promote a country as a niche experience. Go for the experience—who cares what is the next destination? I once took a bus in Iran for 10 hours and ended up somewhere I didn’t know. I woke up the next morning and had no idea where I was. Nobody spoke English but I was fine. They thought I was American, but I was not. They are very pro-American, by the way. Turns out I was near a mine and had slept with local workers all night. 

Me: When was this? [Expecting it to be when he was much younger.]

Tare: 7 years ago. Take the bus and go somewhere. Have you ever been on a Greyhound in the U.S.? I don’t use apps. I just go wherever.

Me: Yes, but I grew up without much disposable income. I wouldn’t recommend Greyhound to anyone coming to California because the experience with each station varies greatly, and America is too spread out to make travel solely by buses viable for first-time travelers. Once the bus drops you off, you usually can’t walk somewhere. It’s not like Europe, which is much more compact. We have not invested in infrastructure in America. The buses are often from 20 or 30 years ago.

Tare: Ok.

On Politics

Me: Do you think Albania should continue to be part of NATO?

Tare: I think if you join the club, you have to pay. You can’t even join a book club these days without paying a membership fee.

Me: I saw Basha, the opposition leader, speaking against the incumbent politician on TV, and it was a spirited discussion. It makes me optimistic about Albania, to see that kind of peaceful opposition. Basha is young and he seems to have good ideas.

Tare: Young? His ideas are old.

Me: Wait, isn’t Lulzim Basha the younger politician [from Democratic Party of Albania, in the opposition since 2013], and Edi Rama the older incumbent [and current Prime Minister, affiliated with the Socialist Party]?

Tare: [Sighs] You are right—Basha is the younger one. He has a young face, but his ideas are old. This is the problem with TV—it projects false perceptions, even unintentionally.

Me: What has Basha or the opposition done that you disagree with?

Tare: They had power for eight years. People are not stupid. They see politicians with fancy cars, fancy watches, and these politicians do not have other jobs.

Me: I notice wherever I go, I get a receipt for services immediately, which includes the VAT. Is that new?

Tare: The law was there 20 years ago, but compliance began only 3 years ago. VAT has finally become standard. Since three years ago, we [the current majority] have made things much tighter.

Me: From what I’ve heard, power outages are a big problem here. Even coming to the city center from the airport, all the street lights were off.

Tare: Yes, I know this issue. The municipality is responsible for the power. It was not receiving sufficient funding.

Me: But this is happening under your party.

Tare: Yes, but it will be fixed. Electricity is provided through a public-private entity. It was an issue with collecting taxes and getting it to the municipality. Now that we are actively collecting taxes, we can better fund infrastructure. The problem is that the local entity is not receiving the taxes. This is a local issue where the taxes are being collected by the federal entity but not making its way down to the local entity efficiently.

Me: How did you change the culture with respect to VAT and other issues?

Tare: Let me give you an example. A while ago, I went with a representative to see the process for issuing birth and death certificates. There was a long line of people. When you reached the front of the kiosk, you gave your money to an outstretched hand, and then in a few weeks, you’d return get your certificate. The representative told me that even if he is the most honest person, he cannot fix this [i.e., he could not stop corruption from happening eventually].

So the former mayor of Albania set up an office. It was a nice environment, and employees dressed well. We made sure the process was a one-stop shop with online facilities, online payment, and so on. The lines disappeared, and the process is now an excellent statement that proper service can improve the citizen’s life. The overall idea is that we must provide better service.

This place? [motions around the Bazaar we are sitting in.] It used to be a dump. My kids came here recently and said it is much nicer now. People are not stupid. They notice changes. They notice better service. 

Me: What is the Albanian Dream?

Tare: We are a small country. We have lots of energy here, and we need to channel the energy properly. We are now two generations away from Communism [over 25 years have passed since the fall of Communism in Albania]. We need to build technology. How did Malaysia and Singapore do it? The key is to channel the energy we have into proper outlets, and once we do that, we can see what the young citizens want.

Me: Do you want foreign capital?

Tare: We are actively trying to attract foreign capital outside of tourism, but we are a small market, and it is not easy.

Me: What is the role of public sector in attracting capital and businesses?

Tare: [chuckles] We don’t have one now. We see the private sector going after opportunities on its own.

On Basketball

Me: What sports did you play?

Tare: I played basketball. I was a forward and played both small and power positions. I played for Albania’s national team.

Me: What was that like in the old days, playing for the national team?

Tare: You will not understand those days. A person who hasn’t lived under Communism cannot fully understand, even if I explain it. My wife, who is from Michigan, even she does not understand when I tell her about life under Communism. You cannot understand unless you were there.

Me: I’m more optimistic than you on this issue. Give it a shot.

Tare: [sighs] It was a big deal for us. Sports are a big deal for a country. The state took care of you as much as they could. They looked after you. We grew up with sports. The Russians can understand me immediately but not Americans. The upbringing is so different.

Me: We have problems now in America with parents pressuring their children to compete and hiring private coaches, leading to burned-out kids.

Tare: The Communist system [modeled on the Soviet system] was genius in creating structure. Take away the ideology, take away the propaganda, and leave just the basics—what they did here was genius. [Note: comment refers only to the specific system created by the Communists for different parts of life, i.e., art, culture, sport, community base, etc.]

Each school had a chain system—a regular academic school attached to another school that specialized in one particular sport or activity. [Note: this sounds similar to some charter schools in the U.S., especially in Las Vegas.] This meant that one school specialized in basketball, another school specialized in another sport. A lot of schools were at different levels and in a natural way.

Me: So I actually know a little bit about this because I admire perhaps the greatest Soviet/Lithuanian basketball player of all time, Arvydas Sabonis. He talked about this system before.

Tare: My dad was an athlete, too, so of course he directed me into sports. They direct you, but the chain was natural. I didn’t feel pressure. You didn’t pay anything [which is different from the United States, where expensive private coaches are becoming more common]. We had a Pioneers Club, sometimes called the House of Pioneers. You go there and you learn the basics. It could be sports, it could be handicrafts. It was a house where you discovered talents and promoted them.

People [today] don’t meet anymore in a coordinated way that builds community. The Communists had meetings for propaganda purposes, but take away the propaganda, and there was more community building. Now, TV has taken over. People sit in their houses and don’t go out. People in the same neighborhood don’t meet each other anymore in a substantive way. Before, under Communism, for propaganda reasons, every weekend, we would all meet together. For example, a cultural center for a specific region, every weekend, would take equipment into the mountains by mules and show a movie. 

[Note: I didn’t follow until I realized that the majority of people in Albania, even today, live in villages or the mountains. The Communists, when they were in charge, had to contend with bringing together vast stretches of people who didn’t necessarily have much in common and who didn’t even have access to TV, much less the internet. How do you unite a people who lack basic access to information or what their government is doing for them? It is difficult to imagine what it was like in the past when you are in a major city filled with young people, but Tare sheds light into how sports was used to unite an entire nation, and why it was so important for the Soviets/Communists to win, especially in the Olympics. This also explains why the Soviet Union kept its star athletes like Sabonis for so long rather than allow them to earn much more money abroad.]

They [the Communists] would take equipment to the mountain every week. People lived in the mountains, so they don’t know what is going on. The government was bringing movies up to the mountains. Yes, it was a part of propaganda, but what I’ve discovered now is that apart from propaganda, it was the best way for people to come together and talk. Everyone now stays home and watches TV. They’re more isolated than they used to be! Today, Albania gives concerts in the villages. 60% of Albanians still live in villages or mountains. We have brought in violinists from China and we hold similar events to bring people together.  

In the past, people were more spread out, but social interaction and collaboration was not based on money. Despite the propaganda, the Soviet Union’s Communist system, which was copied by many countries, attracted talent and brought people together in a natural way.

Me: What are your projects here in Albania?

Tare: First, we are building an underwater museum. People can go down into the water and breathe through diving equipment. There’s already one in Mexico. Second, we are also connecting coastline and mountain areas so people can experience remote areas.

Me: Isn’t that extremely difficult to do? You have to pave new roads, use cement…

Tare: No, in the old days people used paths. The paths are there. We need to put signs up, use navigation apps, and work with what we have so people can stay with villagers. There’s an article in WaPo about this project. [Link: http://invest-in-albania.org/washington-post-writes-mountain-tourism-albania/]

2007-2008 was the end of the era of the travelers in Albania. Mass tourism took over after 2008. The private sector has been aggressive in promoting fairs and other events. Of course, the state puts money in advertisements, but not as much as the private sector’s efforts. The difficulty is implementing concepts. The word sustainable is used everywhere, but how sustainable is it really?

Me: Can tourism promote economic development, especially in rural areas?

Tare: Yes, but it needs experienced guides. It takes time, it takes a special model. Right now, the model is this: whoever has the money wants to make the returns.

I have three kids that need to be picked up from school. I have to go now.

Me: Thank you.

Disclosures: I wanted to take Mr. Tare to a seafood restaurant next to the cafĂ©, and we went to the quieter location to talk, but he only eats fruits and vegetables. I gave him some tea from a pot I’d ordered for myself and the only “benefit” to Tare was a glass of still water. Mr. Tare is a man intent on changing Albania’s perception in the world, and the last politician I’d expect to be caught in any corruption scandal.

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