SAZAN, Albania – This summer Albania plans to debut what it hopes will become a new selfie spot for tourists: Sazan Island, a former military base that still has bunkers and tunnels designed to withstand nuclear attack.
"What once was an isolated, unreached spot, a mystery to almost all Albanians but a few then-communist leaders, may now turn into an attractive place, especially for foreign tourists," says Auron Tare of Albania's National Coastal Agency.
Sazan Island is still technically a military base, but only two sailors remain, offering night shelter to navies patrolling Albanian waters.
"It's a mysterious island, part of the old communist Albania's mystery," says Celine Damery of France's Conservatoire du Littoral, which conserves coastal areas.
The island's many trenches and tunnels show how much money the once cash-strapped communist government spent fearing a Western invasion. But now they're hoping Westerners will come, both to see Sazan and the country's other attractions — unspoiled beaches, tall mountains and history going back to ancient Greece. Tourism is now only 4.8 percent of Albania's GDP, and most current tourists are either Albanian immigrants visiting from Greece and Italy, or ethnic Albanians from neighboring Kosovo, Macedonia or Montenegro.
In addition to its military history, Sazan is also home to rare birds and reptiles, with temperatures a pleasant 50 to 77 degrees F year-round. Half the island's shore is accessible only from the water, due to high rocks on land, but officials think it will be an appealing place for activities like bird-watching and diving. Damery says Sazan's "biodiversity, landscape and heritage" are unusual for the Mediterranean.
Walking uphill on a mile-long pathway through pine trees and singing birds, many of the 3,600 one-man bunkers can still be seen dotting the hills, often in the shade of wild fig trees. It's not easy getting inside the bunkers though: They're still guarded — by lizards and the occasional snake.
Inland, the spooky, ruined buildings still contain old beds, kitchen utensils, school benches and chairs. More than 3,000 troops lived here at a time, with enough food, ammunition and fuel to sustain them for six months.
Sazan "was Albania's airplane carrier into the sea, the port of defense for (the nearby city of) Vlora and the Karaburun peninsula, the key to controlling the Otranto Strait," says Ibrahim Gaxholi, 73, commander for the base from 1975 to 1992.
Due to lack of maintenance, roofs have collapsed on a tailor's building and small battery factory. But much of the destruction occurred in the last 25 years, since Albania became democratic. The now-empty ammunition and fuel depots were looted in 1997, when turmoil followed the collapse of pyramid investment schemes that bankrupted Europe's poorest population. More recently a cinema and former command building were destroyed as targets for joint military exercises with British troops.
The Italian army was stationed here in the 1930s; Italian floor tiles can still be seen in some places. Another interesting spot is a small separate villa, with old equipment that served to monitor movements of U.S. and Italian ships, especially during the 1950s and 1960s when Albania was close to the then-Soviet Union. And hidden among the pine trees on a hill is the villa of a communist defense minister, Beqir Balluku, who was executed by late communist dictator Enver Hoxha as a traitor.
The island needs power and drinking water installed before tourists can be brought to visit, but Tare has lots of ideas for Sazan's future. Anti-nuclear tunnels would be cool for visitors on hot summer days, and could maybe even repurposed as wine cellars, Tare says. Maybe an international school or research center for underwater and coastal heritage could be created here. One idea that's been rejected: offers from Las Vegas investors to turn the island into a casino.
"This summer I will invite Western ambassadors for a visit and more, for sure, are to come," said Tare.