Albania is one of Europe’s poorest nations but has huge potential for tourism, a rich culinary scene and a tradition of religious tolerance.
Here are five things to know about the Adriatic country of 2.8 million people:
Sun, sea, archaeology
A mixture of sun, sea and ancient archaeological sites helps to draw millions of visitors to Albania each year—more than six million in 2019 alone.
The country is blessed with spectacular mountain ranges, dramatic gorges and rivers flowing to its lengthy Adriatic coastline.
The landscape is studded with churches, castles, forts and mosques that bring to life more than 1,500 years of history, particularly in the UNESCO heritage sites of Berat and Gjirokastra.
And local delicacies span traditional Balkans pastries and cheeses, through to seafood, game and frog legs.
But the coronavirus pandemic has hit the tourism industry hard, visitor numbers dropping by nearly 60 per cent last year.
Losses are estimated at more than one billion euros ($1.2 billion).
From lavender to laurel, Albania is one of Europe’s top producers of raw materials for herbal teas, infusions and oils.
As demand soared during the pandemic, Albania produced some 14,000 tonnes last year worth 50 million euros in exports, up by 10 million euros on the previous year.
Most of the harvest was exported to Germany, the United States and France.
The shimmering gold stars and striking blue background of the EU flag can be seen everywhere in Albania.
“Albanians are obsessed with Europe. Europe is for them a pathological love but also a real model,” said the country’s most famous writer, Ismail Kadare.
Having been isolated from the outside world for decades during communist rule, surveys show most Albanians now regard the EU as a role model.
However, many perceive a lack of solidarity over coronavirus vaccines.
The EU eventually offered 145,000 jabs but not before Albania sourced roughly three million doses from elsewhere.
And the EU approved the launch of full membership negotiations last year but is yet to set a date for the first meeting.
The bloc has also been pushing for deep reforms, in particular to tackle organised crime and improve the judiciary.
Investigations designed to root out judicial corruption have led to roughly one-quarter of the country’s 800 judges losing their jobs over the past four years.
“We have done our homework and will continue to do it,” prime minister Edi Rama told AFP, adding that the ball was now in the EU court.
Almost 1.7 million Albanians—equivalent to more than a half of today’s population—have left the country over the past three decades.
Despite 45 years of communist dictatorship ending in 1991, living standards remain among Europe’s lowest with the average monthly salary barely breaking 400 euros and youth unemployment at 30 percent.
Like elsewhere in the Balkans, a shortage of doctors left Albania painfully exposed during the pandemic—just 1.2 doctors for 1,000 people, among the lowest proportion in Europe.
Meanwhile, the population is ageing, rising from 28 years in the early 1990s when it was Europe’s youngest to 37.2 currently, according to the United Nations.
Religion was outlawed under the communists but faith has since come back into the open, with more than half the population identifying as Muslim.
Roughly one-quarter identify as Catholic or Orthodox Christians, and believers generally rub along together whatever their faith.
Communities often share feast days and people of different faiths often marry each other.
Pope Francis chose Albania for his first overseas trip in Europe in 2014 seeking to promote tolerance between religions.