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Albania - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
Albania is no more dangerous from a health point of view than any other country in southeastern Europe. It is a good idea in general to keep up to date with vaccinations against tetanus, polio and diphtheria. Other vaccinations which are worth considering are those against typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B. The first two infections are transmitted by contaminated food or water. Washing your hands before and after eating, and taking care over what you consume will greatly reduce the risk of contracting either typhoid or hepatitis A. If you plan to camp wild or stay in mountain-village homes where it may be more difficult to take these precautions, you might wish to consider being vaccinated before you travel.
Hepatitis B is transmitted by sexual contact with an infected person, or by puncture wounds from contaminated instruments, such as needles. In the UK, the course of vaccinations is usually given only to health workers and other people who are likely to be at high risk. Albania is considered to have an intermediate carriage rate for hepatitis B of 2–8%. For travellers, the risk of hepatitis B can be avoided by not indulging in risky behaviour such as unsafe sex, body piercing, tattooing or acupuncture. There is also an increased risk when working with small children or playing contact sports. There are two types of vaccination, but even the shorter course (Engerix) must be started at least 21 days before travel for those aged 16 or over. Tuberculosis (TB) is transmitted by close contact with infected people and through improperly pasteurised dairy products (see page 36). Although it is on the increase throughout the world, it is relatively rare in Albania; travellers should stick to UHT milk, to reduce the risk not only of TB but also of brucellosis.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Albania is a safe country for visitors. Its traditions of hospitality mean foreigners are treated with great respect; almost all Albanians will go out of their way to help you if you are lost or in trouble. In general, violent crime in Albania happens either within the underworld of organised crime or in the context of a blood feud. A foreign visitor is highly unlikely to come into contact with either of these categories. Nevertheless, there are poor and desperate people in Albania, as there are in any other country, and thefts and muggings do occur. It is foolish to flash expensive watches or cameras around, especially in the peripheral areas of towns where the poorest people tend to live. Many travellers carry a dummy wallet with a small amount of cash in it, so that in the event of a mugging they can hand this over instead of their ‘real’ wallet full of dollars or euros.
The greatest risk most people in Albania face is on the roads, where traffic accidents are very frequent and the fatality rate is one of the highest in Europe. Until a few years ago, Albanian roads were so bad that it was difficult to drive fast enough to kill anyone. Now, though, cars zip along newly upgraded highways which are also used by villagers and their livestock. There is no stigma attached to drink-driving and practically no attempt is made to check it.
Foreign women are treated with respect in Albania, although the same respect is not always shown to Albanian women. Domestic violence, in particular, is very prevalent and almost always unreported. Outside the home, however, women are at less risk of sexual assault or rape than in any northern European country. Of course these crimes are not completely unknown, but they are rare enough to make headline news when they happen.
Although homosexuality is legal in Albania – indeed, a 2010 law specifically protects its citizens against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation – it is still fairly taboo and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community remains very underground. Almost no public figures are openly gay. That said, however, LGBT travellers are unlikely to encounter hostility or discrimination in Albania, assuming they behave with reasonable discretion (as they probably would in an unfamiliar town in their own country). A couple of bars in Tirana advertise ‘gay-friendly’ evenings.
Travellers with a disability
In 2010, Albania signed the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The next step in the journey towards achieving a society based on equality for all will be the ratification of this Convention, which will set targets for improving legislation, access and employment for people with disabilities. While this is all positive, Albania remains a deeply problematic destination for people with physical disabilities, particularly users of wheelchairs. Most pavements in Albania are not accessible, which makes independent movement nearly impossible, and most communist-era public and cultural buildings are entirely inaccessible, often with steep stairs. All that said, however, people with reduced mobility will find Albanians eager (possibly overeager) to assist when necessary.