Blerina Ago, a 28 years old entrepreneur born and raised in the charming city of Berat in Albania, tells us how her life has been flowing between living in the city and exploring the Osumi canyons. She worked hard and dreamt big so that she can tell us her future plans, the Albanian Adventure Resort, or as she calls it: nature’s own wonder park.
Reporter: Blerina how long since you first rafted in this river and the breathtaking scenery?
Blerina: Growing up in Berat all my earliest childhood memories have something and almost everything to do with the river. I recall discussing this same topic a few days ago with my father and looking at pictures of myself happily swimming in the Osumi River. It felt so safe that when I was invited to raft by the boys, cause I was kind of a tomcat when I was growing up, I immediately said yes, and so I found myself paddling and rafting in Osumi, something that for everyone in that time in Albania was considered unusual not to mention all the: “Are you out of your mind?” comments from my parents, my teachers, my friends and so on…
Reporter: So when did you decide that rafting was your sport your passion?
Blerina: It is weird because now it feels like I always knew that rafting was my thing, but when I first felt the adrenaline of the rapids and the water splashing in my face I was totally hooked.
Reporter: How did this passion turn into a professional sports activity?
Blerina: Like me there were a group of people of boys that were hooked up by the adrenaline and the excitement of this activity. We would go every day to the river with our modest rafts at the time and challenge ourselves with new rapids. Besides this the Osumi canyons are truly a wonder of the nature and we felt like we had to experience that beauty every day and show it to our friends and family. We felt compelled to make the Osumi canyons and rafting accessible for everyone. We invested our energy and our passion into turning this sport in one of the most successful touristic products in Albania at moment.
Reporter: What do you love most about rafting?
Blerina: I love everything about rafting…and I take great pride in touring visitors around with our rafts. We have been given a great opportunity to show to the whole world that Albania holds remarkable treasures ready to be discovered. To add to that rafting is one of the best activities to meet and bond with people. There is so much positive energy, laughter and friendship involved around rafting and I get to do that every year, every season! It really motivates me being around people and that’s what I believe enjoy most about rafting.
Reporter: How did rafting became such a successful tourism activity in Albania? I was coming from the airport and there was a huge banner of Albania Rafting just as I entered in Albania.
Blerina: It didn’t happened overnight…It started over 15 years ago when after so many requests from our friends and family members we started to do our first rafting trips in the Osumi canyons. Zamo Spathara who is now the president of the Albania Rafting Federation (ARF) was the one of the first rafting aficionados in Albania, so he had the idea to transform his passion and the many requests that he was getting into an actual experience. He acted upon his dream of making rafting accessible, safe and enjoyable for everyone and he pushed me and a few other young rafting fans into becoming certified guides. Ever since, the ARF was established and has been doing a lot of work to guarantee that rafting is exercised according to international standards in Albania. I am now the Secretary General of the ARF and we have had several trainings, certification and other activities to ensure that each one of the rafting guides that has been touring visitors is licensed and certified to deliver rafting tours. We have had great results and have been welcoming over 5000 visitors per year into the Osumi canyons and Vjosa river rapids.
Reporter: Now please tell me what the Next Big Thing is. What’s the Albania Adventure Resort? How did you come up with the idea?
Blerina: We have been doing great with rafting, almost every season, for over 15 years, we have accomplished a lot! Here, I am not just talking about promoting and standardizing rafting but also promoting adventure tourism, nature preservation and youth employment and participation in our activities. With all the attention that we have been getting lately, cause everyone wants to go rafting now…(Yayyy!) the spring season was so busy that sometimes we were unable to accommodate or tour occasional groups of visitors that didn’t book far in advance. Even though we were organized and fully prepared equipment and guide-wise, at some point our rafting activity became really hard because our base was far from the Osumi canyons and Vjosa river. What we needed was a rafting base close to the rafting itineraries and there was nothing there other than an old abandoned ex-military base built during communism. The base was there just next to the nature and breathtaking scenery of the Osumi canyons; we just needed to do what we have done so far…believe in the power of transformation and work hard to make our dreams come true. We immediately rolled our sleeves into work and requested the ex-military base, a property of the Albanian government, to be used for our rafting and tourism purposes and we were granted the base as part of an agreement of making the “Rafting and outdoor sports center” a public-private partnership between the ARF and the Ministry of Education and Sport. Furthermore, we made a business plan with an international consulting company, worked with an architecture studio to have a revitalizing plan for the area and the old buildings. We are now working in completing the first construction phase of the Albania Adventure Resort with the support of the Albanian Development Fund.
Reporter: So what is your role in the Albanian Adventure Resort? How is the center going to operate?
Blerina: It’s not that I don’t like wearing many hats…I love it! I am the administrator of the center and I have taken this responsibility because I believe that I will go through with this initiative. It is challenging for women, especially young women everywhere in the world to assume a leadership position, mainly because of how societies have been built. I have been through a lot as a young women working in Albania and I am trying to inspire other young women like myself by giving a positive model, a model of hard work and perseverance as the right way to succeed.
As for the Albania Adventure Resort project, we have already set our goals and objectives and we are working hard to achieve our first milestone of establishing the visitor welcoming center and basic accommodation facilities within this year (2016). The AAR project is being implemented in three phases over the period of 5 years, so we expect to unravel one by one each one of the surprises that this centre hold and to list a few that we are working hard to develop within the first two years: 1. developing 5 new outdoor sports/recreational activities besides rafting (kayaking, hydro speed, mountain biking, trekking, snow-shooing, canyoning) in the area around the centre within the first phase; 2. developing student spring-summer-winter break programs for high-school and university students. 3. offer tourism professional and tour guide certification for young people that want to invest in a career in adventure tourism, tourism management, etc.
Reporter: That’s great news Blerina and I wish you a lot of success. Is there anything else you want to add?
Blerina: We are now being supported by a lot of people through funds and capacity building because the AAR project is a very big project for Albania, the Balkans and outdoor sports. We welcome anyone who wants to give a contribution to the development of this center to join us, or come and visit us in the upcoming rafting season starting from March 2016 in the Osumi River canyons, in Skrapar, Albania. Thank you for the interview!
Reporter: Thank you and good luck!
And for all curious and adventurous mind, below is a link to the Albania Adventure Resort… the “coming soon” video!