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Photograph: Daisy Denham / Time Out

How music festivals are putting the Albanian Riviera on the map

This summer’s ION Festival brought more partygoers than ever to the small coastal town of Dhërmi. Could Albania be on its way to becoming the ‘new Croatia’?

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson
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The choppy waters of Dhërmi beach are glistening turquoise in the sun, with the Ceraunian mountains towering overhead. Pomegranate trees and stray cats dot the streets. Holidaymakers munch on plates of calamari spaghetti and Greek salad in sea-view restaurants, and couples laugh over bulbous glasses of Aperol spritz. But once you hear the distinct thud of four-to-the-floor techno in the distance, and realise that just about everyone is wearing a bum bag or bucket hat, you soon realise that this isn’t just another European holiday destination. It’s the continent’s latest festival hotspot.

Despite its long strip of Mediterranean coastline, bordered by Montenegro in the north and Greece in the south, Albania has been largely overlooked by foreign tourists until recently. Formerly a communist dictatorship, it remained shut to much of the world until the death of dictator Enver Hoxha in 1985. It remains one of Europe’s poorest countries.

Unlike nearby Greece and Italy, Albania is also not the most accessible place to visit. At the moment, the country has only one major international 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, then a two-hour ferry ride.

But lately, something has changed. Visitor numbers are rising fast: flight-booking website Skyscanner saw a 48 percent increase in flight bookings to Albania for 2022 compared to 2019. According to the Albanian government’s Institute of Statistics, 1.4 million foreign tourists visited the country in July this year: 21 percent higher than in 2021, and 16 percent higher than the pre-pandemic tourist levels of 2019.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. Albania is cheaper than Italy, but arguably just as beautiful. It offers beaches, hiking, a blossoming food scene, and a fascinating (if dark) history.

These are all reasons enough to visit, but there’s another thing that has attracted tourists to the country in recent years: music festivals. Because what’s better than fist-pumping to your favourite DJs in a muddy field, drenched in rain? Doing the same, but in a beach town in 30-degree heat.

It began with Kala, which became Albania’s first ever international music festival when it launched in Dhërmi in 2018. The seaside town of Dhërmi is now home to an abundance of dance music festivals run by the same promoters: Explorations, Inner StateHospitality On The Beach. And as of 2022, there’s also ION Festival: seven days of electronic music and wellness activities on the Albanian Riviera.

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

This September was ION’s inaugural edition, following two years of cancellations thanks to the pandemic. The festival is programmed by two well-known London promoters, Love Wins Everything (LWE) and Junction 2. The line-up included the usual crowd of big-name techno DJs (albeit somewhat lacking in the gender and ethnic diversity that crowds have rightly grown to expect from their parties – though promoters LWE say they’re ‘working hard on that front’). The crowd is overwhelmingly British, mostly consisting of the kind 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 rave shaves.

Albania coast, ION festival
Photograph: Daisy Denham

Most of the stages open in the evening and the music carries through until around 7am, leaving the days free for activities and exploring – or, most likely, sweating out last night’s sins on the beach. If you need help with that side of things, ION also includes a wellness and restoration programme, which offers everything from morning and sunset yoga to guided breathwork meditation and cacao ceremonies. Although most of the crowd will be there to party, the consideration for wellness ensures there’s at least the potential for ION to be more than just a piss-up in the sun.

One stage is surrounded by cliffs and only accessible by speedboat

And whether you’re there for the beats or the breathwork, Dhërmi’s site makes for a pretty spectacular festival location. There are three sea-view stages, another arena in a hollowed out cove on the beach, and an underground car park converted into a sweaty rave cave. A smaller, secluded stage at Gjipe canyon is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and only accessible by speedboat. Then there’s ‘The Fort’: an intimate-capacity party venue on the roof of a nineteenth-century stone built castle, which (according to Tirana International Radio) once served as a former Soviet submarine base.

Hotels and self-catering apartments of varying levels of poshness are included to purchase as a package with your festival ticket. This year’s prices started at £256 ($295) per person for the week, all in. The idea is to keep the experience affordable and to prevent any overcharging on accommodation.

Albania coast, ION festival
Photograph: Daisy Denham

Like Kala festival, which uses the same site, ION is run in conjunction with Mainstage: an overseas events company which has been working closely with the Albanian government to get more tourists into the country. ‘The authorities have been very accommodating in letting us use spaces,’ says Jeff Gray, head of events at LWE. ‘They’re really keen to bring people to Albania who haven’t been before.’

Local councils agreed to building temporary ferry ports closer to Dhërmi, and even granted permission to effectively close off and pedestrianise the entire seafront for a week, transforming the whole area into a 3,000-capacity festival site. From a logistics point of view, this proved a godsend: bar some travel chaos with ferry cancellations from Corfu on the way there, the whole thing ran amazingly smoothly.

The tourist season has been extended. The locals are over the moon

The festival has made some effort to include local talent from Albania and neighbouring Kosovo in its line-up, including Tomi GJ, Elise, Andy Q and Altin Boshnjaku. Residents of Albania and Kosovo can also get discounted tickets, without accommodation, by presenting a suitable ID. According to management, around 500 of these were sold.

We spoke to a group of locals at a roadside bar in Dhërmi’s old town, about a 20-minute walk uphill from the festival site. Perhaps surprisingly, the consensus seemed positive. ‘The festival is good for Dhërmi,’ says Miltos Bagias, a veterinary professor. ‘I like meeting new people. We like dancing ourselves!’

‘The main tourist season in Dhërmi is July and August, so in June and September, it’s a ghost town here,’ Gray says. ‘Now the tourist season has been extended. The locals have been over the moon and want to work 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 major music festivals launched in the country, increasing arrivals to the host town of Zadar by 51,000 in a year. By 2015, this had grown to 20, including Outlook, Dimensions, The Garden, Ultra and Hospitality On the Beach (which has now moved to Dhërmi). Most of these are still going, having cemented a permanent festival season in Croatia, in a similar vein to Ibiza’s party months.

While the influx of foreign visitors is good news for local businesses in Dhërmi, who have had their trading season almost doubled, it’s worth sounding a note of caution. And for that, you don’t need to look any further than Petrčane: a sleepy Croatian fishing village which hosted the British-run festival The Garden back in 2006. The influx of visitors to Petrčane caused a boom in growth and infrastructure for the area: a stream of new businesses opened up, including new accommodation in anticipation of an ever-expanding festival crowd. But after four years, pressure from a local hotel forced the festival promoter to relocate the events to Tisno. Hundreds of building sites were left unfinished.  

Albania coast, ION festival
Photograph: Rob Jones

There’s also the environmental impact to think about: by the end of ION, the previously spotless beaches were dotted with empty baggies, cigarette filters, and other rubbish. The bars provide reusable cups to clamp down on single-use plastics, with deposits to encourage re-use throughout the week, but that didn’t seem to stop plenty of cups being littered around the site. (For its part, ION previously reported that it would include the average cost of carbon offsetting in the ticket price, and is donating around £14,700 ($16,900) to Cool Earth’s work with an indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon.)

Construction work is happening just about everywhere

And more visitors are on their way. In 2019, it was announced that the EU would invest €40 million (£34.4 million, $39.7 million) into Albania as a part of a tourism development programme. Vlorë International Airport, around an hour and a half drive from Dhërmi, has been under construction since 2021 and is expected to be completed in 2025, despite controversy over its location in a protected nature reserve. Meanwhile, the Llogara Tunnel will slice through the mountains and cut journey times from Tirana to 40 minutes. It’ll also put Dhërmi within an hour of the new airport.

Walking up and down the coast here, there’s a looming feeling that the change brought on by the festivals of the last few years is only just the beginning. Construction work is happening just about everywhere. Huge, concrete skeletons of soon-to-be five-star hotels loom over beaches, while large heaps of rubble sit by the edges of roads, cordoned off to festivalgoers. It’s a big contrast to the quiet, pedestrianised streets and whitewashed chapels of the old town. A decade from now, the coastline here will be almost unrecognisable, with projects like the Dhërmi Plaza Hotel at least doubling the holiday accommodation available.

If it’s not already, Albania is well on its way to becoming the next major European festival destination. But with the amount of money being pumped into the region, it will be interesting to see how long this lasts. As the ongoing development turns this rugged landscape into a family-friendly holiday destination, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see festivals priced out.

If you’re thinking about getting down to a festival on the Albanian Riviera, it might be best to go soon – before the country opens for mass tourism and the landscape is transformed. The mountainous drive to get into Dhërmi might be impractical, but it’s also jaw-droppingly dramatic. And when you look out over groups of friends hugging as the sun starts to set over the sea… well, in that moment it really does feel like one of the world’s most picturesque places for a bit of a dance.

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

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

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