The medieval market of Kruja with souvenirs “Made in China”

A project aimed at supporting local production and preservation of traditional craftsmanship promised to reduce the number of imported souvenirs — but it is not yielding the desired results.

Chelsea Rae Ybanez, Emanuel Smaka, Inva Hasanaliaj

The presence of tourists in the medieval market of Kruja is not exactly newsworthy.

However, a group of Chinese tourists who want to buy locally produced souvenirs, but find in front of them Chinese-made products, is curious to say the least.

“I have traveled here from Beijing, and I’d like to buy something from this historic town, but I see that most of these souvenirs are manufactured in my own country,” says Henry Wang, while standing on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of a shop that sells folk costumes and traditional clothing.

A project was developed and implemented three years ago to improve local employment by reducing the number of imported souvenirs and other products.  This project was developed by the Ministry of Culture, the Albanian-American Development Foundation and the Ministry of Urban Development, in cooperation with the business community of the medieval market in Kruja.

This memorandum was signed in September 2014. The goal was to reduce the flow of imported goods by 30-percent within the first two years, followed by a 20-percent decrease each following year. The project promised improvements in the infrastructure of the medieval market including: works in the sewage network, updated electrical work and establishing an information office for tourists.

The memorandum also established Tourism Improvement District, TID Kruja,  a non-governmental organization focused on increasing tourism development in Kruja. The organization offered financial support through grants to aid the in preservation of the town, folklore and traditional craftsmanship.

The first phase of the project, costing one million dollars, reconstructed the old facades and roofs of the shops. However, the second phase aimed to support artisans and improve local businesses is still in process a year later.

A shopowner sits outside on a crisp Wednesday morning, waiting to greet tourist at the Old Bazaar. Picture Credit: Chelsea Rae Ybanez

Nineteen artisans continue to keep the traditional craftsmanship alive in the Old Bazaar. Their crafts are commonly placed alongside white fezzes made in China, Albanian flags made in Turkey and Bosnian souvenirs.

“We have a hard time getting rid of these souvenirs,” says Bledar Kaçiu, manager of TID Kruja.  “There is a need to establish a closer cooperation between local and national institutions to preserve tradition and cultural heritage in the Kruja market.”

Fazan Berhami, an artisan who sells silver products and ornaments in the medieval market, says that it is impossible to prevent the sale of imported goods and souvenirs. He sells souvenirs made in Sarajevo, Istanbul and Beijing in his shop.  Berhami is also a member of the board of TID Kruja.

“The sale of these products will never be eliminated.  They are cheaper and it is the only way for businesses to survive,” Berhami said.

Soccer fans showed patriotism with flags and fezzes made in China at the Loro Borici stadium in Shkodra when the Albanian national team competed against Serbia.

Ndriçim Guni is the only craftsman who produces artisanal white fezzes at the bazaar. It’s a white brimless felt cap traditionally worn by Albanians, made from wool, soap and water.

“This has been my family’s craft since around Second World War,” says Guni.  “Imported fezzes are sold almost in every shop here at the bazaar, and this has made our job even more difficult.  We need real support, because this competition is hurting us bad.  A fez produced abroad is cheaper than the ones I make.”

Artisans say that TID Kruja has not fulfilled all the commitments it made to promote tourism.

Security cameras have not been installed in the medieval market area, even though the Ministry of Urban Development and Tourism said a year ago that this process would be completed shortly.  The lack of security cameras is a source of concern for artisans and shop owners.

Fazan Berhami says this is a promise long overdue, but he is hopeful that a solution to this problem will be found.

The project sponsored by the Albanian-American Development Fund, and supported by the Ministry of Urban Development and Tourism, the Ministry of Culture, and the Kruja town hall envisioned the creation and introduction of 600 new products in the bazaar, and moving the medieval market online to expand sales.

Artisans and craftsmen say they’ve received some assistance and support through training, but believe creating and introducing 600 new products into the market is impossible.

Few manufacturers have managed to advertise their products online, but have not received any assistance to begin online sales. This is also stemmed from a lack of internet knowledge and the cost of marketing online.

This project was not aimed only at the preservation and support of cultural heritage, but it would also ensure the enforcement of a particular piece of legislation.

Traditional two-string cifteli decorated with the Albanian eagle remain unplayed in the corner of a local shop in Kruja. Picture Credit: Chelsea Rae Ybanez

Article five of the law, “On Crafts”, forbids the sale of imported artistic-cultural souvenirs and objects in areas declared as “historic and archeological sites.”

The sale of the imported products should have been prohibited since the beginning of this year. The organization in charge of managing and facilitating tourism in Kruja is skeptical about the enforcement of the law.

“I don’t know whether the enforcement of this law is even possible, but we will try our best to support the artisans,” the manager of TID Kruja tells PSE.

However, the large quantity of imported souvenirs is not the only problem in the medieval market of Kruja.  This town and the tourist site is supposedly one of the most visited areas in the country, but there is no information office to guide the visitors and confirm the amount of tourism.

The only institutions that provide any official data are the two main museums that received around 100,000 visitors during 2016.

“The number of tourists was satisfactory,” Medi Hafizi tells PSE. Hafizi is the manager of Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu museum and National Ethnographic Museum.  “During these last three years, the number of visitors has increased by 5,000 each year.”

Hafizi is the representative of the Ministry of Culture at the managing board of TID Kruja, but he chose not to comment on the workings and the progress of this project.

Kruja town hall reports nearly 300,000 people visited the town last year. The lack of an information office is blamed on mistakes and flawed practices inherited from past administrations.

“We will try to open one at the start of the summer season to better serve tourists,” says Drini Masha, the head of Public Relations and Tourism Department at the Kruja town hall.

The last generation of artisans?

Only nine artisans and craftsmen in Kruja have benefitted from grants distributed during the course of this project. According to representatives from TID, the selection of recipients was carried out with the aim of fostering competition.

“No doubt there has been some discontent among the artisans about the people selected to be recipients of grants, but we have selected nine among them in order to get as many people as possible involved in this process,” says the manager of this organization.

Making sure that skills and the art of craftsmanship are passed to younger generations is another element of this project. It is not easy to get a clear answer on how much support artisans and craftsmen have received for this purpose during the course of this project.

An artisan pressing wool to create Albanian traditional shoes, called opinga, in his shop in Kruja. Picture Credit: Chelsea Rae Ybanez

Dallëndyshe Tabaku is one of the artisans who have benefitted from the support of this one million dollar project.  She says that passing a craft down from one generation to another is very difficult.

“The state should do more to get the young involved,” says Tabaku.  “The amount of work we put in is not justified (by proceeds) and this is the reason why our children don’t want to follow in our footsteps.  We are the last generation of artisans.”

Some of the artisans PSE talked to say that even though their respective craft is a source of pride and pleasure, they would not want their children to inherit their craft.

Furthermore, many youngsters have moved to Tirana or have left the country to find better paying jobs.

“Both my two children do not live in Kruja; my daughter lives in England, while my son left two months ago to seek asylum in Germany,” says Behare Kasmi, while she weaves a rug on a loom she inherited from her family.

She will retire in two years, and according to Kasmi, these two years carry the promise of a well-deserved reprieve from a hard life of work. There will be one less artisan at the medieval market in Kruja, fewer goods and souvenirs produced by the hands of Kruja craftsmen and craftswomen, and more products made in Sarajevo, Istanbul, and Beijing.
Though the history of the market will continue to live on, the authentic Albanian products are slowly being replaced with factory made products.