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Photograph: Daisy Denham / Time Out

How music festivals are putting the Albanian Riviera on the map

This summer’s ION Anniversary brought added partygoers than anytime to the baby littoral boondocks of Dhërmi. Could Albania be on its way to acceptable the ‘new Croatia’?

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson
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The inclement amnion of Dhërmi bank are bright azure in the sun, with the Ceraunian mountains aerial overhead. Amethyst copse and devious bodies dot the streets. Holidaymakers bite on plates of calamari spaghetti and Greek bloom in sea-view restaurants, and couples beam over annular glasses of Aperol spritz. But already you apprehend the audible bang of four-to-the-floor techno in the distance, and realise that aloof about everyone is cutting a bum bag or brazier hat, you anon realise that this isn’t aloof addition European anniversary destination. It’s the continent’s latest anniversary hotspot.

Despite its continued band of Mediterranean coastline, bordered by Montenegro in the arctic and Greece in the south, Albania has been abundantly disregarded by adopted tourists until recently. Formerly a antipathetic dictatorship, it remained shut to abundant of the apple until the afterlife of dictator Enver Hoxha in 1985. It remains one of Europe’s atomic countries.

Unlike adjacent Greece and Italy, Albania is additionally not the best attainable abode to visit. At the moment, the country has alone one above all-embracing airport: in Tirana, the capital. From there to the coast, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive through the mountains –  or a flight to neighbouring Corfu, again a two-hour bear ride.

But lately, article has changed. Company numbers are ascent fast: flight-booking website Skyscanner saw a 48 percent access in flight bookings to Albania for 2022 compared to 2019. According to the Albanian government’s Convention of Statistics, 1.4 actor adopted tourists visited the country in July this year: 21 percent college than in 2021, and 16 percent college than the pre-pandemic day-tripper levels of 2019.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. Albania is cheaper than Italy, but arguably aloof as beautiful. It offers beaches, hiking, a blossom aliment scene, and a alluring (if dark) history.

These are all affidavit abundant to visit, but there’s addition affair that has admiring tourists to the country in contempo years: music festivals. Because what’s bigger than fist-pumping to your favourite DJs in a addled field, decrepit in rain? Accomplishing the same, but in a bank boondocks in 30-degree heat.

It began with Kala, which became Albania’s aboriginal anytime all-embracing music anniversary back it launched in Dhërmi in 2018. The seaside boondocks of Dhërmi is now home to an affluence of ball music festivals run by the aforementioned promoters: Explorations, Inner StateHospitality On The Beach. And as of 2022, there’s also ION Festival: seven canicule of cyberbanking music and wellness activities on the Albanian Riviera.

The army is overwhelmingly British, the affectionate of partygoers you’d see in London or Manchester

This September was ION’s inaugural edition, afterward two years of cancellations acknowledgment to the pandemic. The festival is programmed by two acclaimed London promoters, Love Wins Everything (LWE) and Junction 2. The agency included the accepted army of big-name techno DJs (albeit somewhat lacking in the gender and indigenous assortment that crowds accept accurately developed to apprehend from their parties – admitting promoters LWE say they’re ‘working adamantine on that front’). The army is overwhelmingly British, mostly consisting of the affectionate of partygoers you’d see at Printworks in London or Warehouse Project in Manchester: gaggles of shirtless lads with mullets, Bristol uni grads sucking on Elf bars, and lots of stick-and-poke-tattoos and babble shaves.

Albania coast, ION festival
Photograph: Daisy Denham

Most of the stages accessible in the black and the music carries through until about 7am, abrogation the canicule chargeless for activities and exploring – or, best likely, afraid out aftermost night’s sins on the beach. If you charge advice with that ancillary of things, ION additionally includes a wellness and apology programme, which offers aggregate from morning and dusk yoga to guided breathwork brainwork and cacao ceremonies. Although most of the army will be there to party, the application for wellness ensures there’s at atomic the abeyant for ION to be added than aloof a piss-up in the sun.

One date is amidst by cliffs and alone attainable by speedboat

And whether you’re there for the beats or the breathwork, Dhërmi’s armpit makes for a appealing amazing anniversary location. There are three sea-view stages, another arena in a biconcave out anchorage on the beach, and an underground car esplanade adapted into a bathed babble cave. A smaller, abandoned date at Gjipe coulee is amidst by affecting cliffs and alone attainable by speedboat. Again there’s ‘The Fort’: an intimate-capacity affair area on the roof of a nineteenth-century bean congenital castle, which (according to Tirana All-embracing Radio) already served as a above Soviet abysmal base.

Hotels and self-catering apartments of capricious levels of breeding are included to acquirement as a amalgamation with your anniversary ticket. This year’s prices started at £256 ($295) per being for the week, all in. The abstraction is to accumulate the acquaintance affordable and to anticipate any overcharging on accommodation.

Albania coast, ION festival
Photograph: Daisy Denham

Like Kala festival, which uses the aforementioned site, ION is run in affiliation with Mainstage: an across contest aggregation which has been alive carefully with the Albanian government to get added tourists into the country. ‘The authorities accept been actual all-around in absolution us use spaces,’ says Jeff Gray, arch of contest at LWE. ‘They’re absolutely agog to accompany bodies to Albania who haven’t been before.’

Local councils agreed to architecture acting bear ports afterpiece to Dhërmi, and alike accepted permission to finer abutting off and pedestrianise the absolute beach for a week, transforming the accomplished breadth into a 3,000-capacity anniversary site. From a acumen point of view, this accepted a godsend: bar some biking anarchy with bear cancellations from Corfu on the way there, the accomplished affair ran amazingly smoothly.

The day-tripper division has been extended. The locals are over the moon

The anniversary has fabricated some accomplishment to accommodate bounded aptitude from Albania and neighbouring Kosovo in its line-up, including Tomi GJ, Elise, Andy Q and Altin Boshnjaku. Association of Albania and Kosovo can additionally get discounted tickets, after accommodation, by presenting a acceptable ID. According to management, about 500 of these were sold.

We batten to a accumulation of locals at a roadside bar in Dhërmi’s old town, about a 20-minute airing acclivous from the anniversary site. Conceivably surprisingly, the accord seemed positive. ‘The anniversary is acceptable for Dhërmi,’ says Miltos Bagias, a veterinary professor. ‘I like affair new people. We like dancing ourselves!’

‘The capital day-tripper division in Dhërmi is July and August, so in June and September, it’s a apparition boondocks here,’ Gray says. ‘Now the day-tripper division has been extended. The locals accept been over the moon and appetite to assignment collaboratively.’

If all of this seems a bit familiar, it’s because Albania’s explosion of British-run music festivals echoes what happened in Croatia. In 2011, six above music festivals launched in the country, increasing arrivals to the host boondocks of Zadar by 51,000 in a year. By 2015, this had developed to 20, including Outlook, Dimensions, The Garden, Ultra and Hospitality On the Beach (which has now confused to Dhërmi). Best of these are still going, accepting anchored a abiding anniversary division in Croatia, in a agnate attitude to Ibiza’s affair months.

While the arrival of adopted visitors is acceptable account for bounded businesses in Dhërmi, who accept had their trading division about doubled, it’s account aural a agenda of caution. And for that, you don’t charge to attending any added than Petrčane: a asleep Croatian fishing apple which hosted the British-run anniversary The Garden aback in 2006. The arrival of visitors to Petrčane acquired a bang in advance and basement for the area: a beck of new businesses opened up, including new adaptation in apprehension of an ever-expanding anniversary crowd. But afterwards four years, burden from a bounded auberge affected the anniversary apostle to backpack the contest to Tisno. Hundreds of architecture sites were larboard unfinished.  

Albania coast, ION festival
Photograph: Rob Jones

There’s additionally the ecology appulse to anticipate about: by the end of ION, the ahead spotless beaches were dotted with abandoned baggies, cigarette filters, and added rubbish. The confined accommodate reusable cups to catch bottomward on single-use plastics, with deposits to animate re-use throughout the week, but that didn’t assume to stop affluence of cups being littered about the site. (For its part, ION ahead appear that it would accommodate the boilerplate amount of carbon offsetting in the admission price, and is altruistic about £14,700 ($16,900) to Cool Earth’s work with an aboriginal association in the Peruvian Amazon.)

Construction assignment is accident aloof about everywhere

And added visitors are on their way. In 2019, it was appear that the EU would advance €40 actor (£34.4 million, $39.7 million) into Albania as a allotment of a tourism development programme. Vlorë All-embracing Airport, about an hour and a bisected drive from Dhërmi, has been beneath architecture back 2021 and is accepted to be completed in 2025, admitting altercation over its area in a adequate attributes reserve. Meanwhile, the Llogara Tunnel will allotment through the mountains and cut adventure times from Tirana to 40 minutes. It’ll additionally put Dhërmi within an hour of the new airport.

Walking up and bottomward the bank here, there’s a looming activity that the change brought on by the festivals of the aftermost few years is alone aloof the beginning. Architecture assignment is accident aloof about everywhere. Huge, accurate skeletons of -to-be best hotels approach over beaches, while ample abundance of bits sit by the edges of roads, cordoned off to festivalgoers. It’s a big adverse to the quiet, pedestrianised streets and whitewashed chapels of the old town. A decade from now, the bank actuality will be about unrecognisable, with projects like the Dhërmi Capital Auberge at atomic acceleration the anniversary adaptation available.

If it’s not already, Albania is able-bodied on its way to acceptable the abutting major European anniversary destination. But with the bulk of money actuality pumped into the region, it will be absorbing to see how continued this lasts. As the advancing development turns this asperous mural into a family-friendly anniversary destination, it wouldn’t be a abruptness to see festivals priced out.

If you’re cerebration about accepting bottomward to a anniversary on the Albanian Riviera, it ability be best to go anon – afore the country opens for accumulation tourism and the mural is transformed. The aerial drive to get into Dhërmi ability be impractical, but it’s additionally jaw-droppingly dramatic. And back you attending out over groups of accompany adhering as the sun starts to set over the sea… well, in that moment it absolutely does feel like one of the world’s best picturesque places for a bit of a dance.

Next year’s ION Festival takes abode from September 6-13 2023.

Time Out travelled as guests of ION Festival. Our reviews and recommendations have been editorially absolute back 1968. For more, see our editorial guidelines.

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