More than a dozen people, sweaty and partially undressed, laughed as a capoeira instructor instructed us to crawl on the ground. He advised us to make eye contact as we followed each other’s movements, but it was difficult not to be captivated by the sparkling blue Ionian Sea. On Dhermi, a village on the Albanian Riviera, one side of an open-air pavilion offered a view of the shimmering waters, free from the crowded yachts found on the Croatian and Greek coastlines. On the other side, palm trees dotted the landscape, with the lush green Ceraunian Mountains in the background.
Our capoeira class was interrupted by a sound check, reminding us of the reason we had gathered: Kala, a weeklong music and wellness festival. Approximately 3,500 young people, adorned in transparent flare pants, crop tops, and cowboy boots, had descended upon Dhermi in late May and early June to dance under the moonlight, hypnotized by the beats, and immerse themselves in Kundalini yoga, breath work, massage, and capoeira classes. Four stages showcased talented DJs like Hunee and Antal, CC:Disco!, Grace Sands, and Daphni, who mixed techno and electronic beats with funk, disco, and jazz. A fifth stage, situated in Gjipe, a canyon with red cliffs, provided a scenic daytime venue accessible by a short boat ride.
In Dhermi, restaurants offered delicious and fresh seafood at reasonable prices. Kala’s week-long packages, which included tickets and accommodations, started at $370. The local residents were also partaking in the festivities, blasting their own music from bars, cars, and balconies at night. Some hungover festival-goers were even surprised to encounter wandering goats in the village streets.
Dhermi has experienced a surge in international tourism since the introduction of Kala in 2018. With the addition of three more events in the village, supported by Mainstage Festivals, the tourism season in Dhermi now extends from the end of May through September, attracting visitors from around the world. Each open-air stage at the festival created a unique atmosphere, from cozy coves to platforms jutting into the sea, providing festival-goers with diverse experiences.
The rising popularity of Dhermi mirrors the overall increase in tourism to Albania. In 2022, a record 7.5 million people visited the country, spending approximately $3.1 billion. Tourists are drawn to the Albanian Riviera as an alternative to the crowded and expensive Greek and Croatian destinations. Influencers on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok compare Albania’s natural beauty to that of the Maldives or Bali.
In addition to the coastal attractions, history buffs are discovering Albania’s ancient Greek and Roman ruins, Ottoman-era architecture, and unique concrete bunkers. UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as the prehistoric ruins of Butrint and Lake Ohrid, add to the country’s appeal. Outdoor enthusiasts also flock to Albania for activities like cycling along the Vjosa River and hiking in the Albanian Alps. Furthermore, nearly 300 government-certified agritourism operators offer farm tours, wine tastings, and homemade meals.
The transformation of Albania’s tourism industry has been significant, especially considering the country’s troubled past. Emerging from a period of isolation and political turmoil, Albania has successfully rebranded itself as a safe and appealing destination. Kala, in particular, has become a major ambassador for the country, attracting high-profile visitors such as Prime Minister Edi Rama.
The rapid development in Dhermi has brought both prosperity and challenges. The influx of foreign visitors has transformed the village, with construction sites dominating the adjacent village of Drymades. While locals benefit from the increased business opportunities, concerns have arisen regarding the impact on the environment. There have been instances of interrupted utilities and insufficient cleaning services, highlighting the need for improved infrastructure to accommodate the growing number of tourists. Additionally, there are concerns about the potential harm to the region’s flora and fauna due to ongoing construction projects.
Despite the challenges, the overall sentiment in Dhermi is one of gratitude. The festival has propelled the village into the international spotlight and contributed to the economic growth of the region. While the government and local businesses work to address the growing pains, the wave of tourism continues to shape the future of Dhermi and Albania as a whole.