Elona Bejo used to work as an architect in Tirana, the capital of Albania, but often spent the weekends hiking and exploring the outdoors. This desire to return to nature inspired the business she now runs: Ferma Albanik, an eco-lodge and ‘bio-boutique’ that brings visitors deep into the heart of Albania's countryside.
Elona's family had once owned land in the countryside, a few hours south of the capital, and her parents encouraged her to go back to the region. So, she proposed a business plan to the local municipality, initially to use the land for agriculture, but she soon developed a bigger vision: to combine tourism with an appreciation for the untouched environment.
‘When I started this, there were no roads. Sometimes, we were stuck in the mud and we didn't have electricity, so we were working with a generator,’ she says. ‘But I had this feeling that this was a good idea and a good investment. I was feeling good about it and that's what's important.’
Ferma Albanik has blossomed from that dream. There are three guest houses with big windows that open up to the lush forest around the lodge, as well as a restaurant that serves food grown in its greenhouse and sourced from local producers. Elona organizes excursions, such as swimming in nearby lakes, hiking in the mountains and horseback riding, and often hosts yoga and meditation retreats.
Much of Elona's time developing the business and living in this region has been about reconnecting with nature – taking walks and learning about different native plants and their properties. She has a bio-boutique where she shares information and serves teas and tinctures made of local medicinal plants. ‘I serve a wake-up tea that's a mix of five different plants that helps to awaken our systems and blood circulation,’ she says. ‘When people come here, I want them to have all senses connected to here.’
‘Every day is different. It's not like working in an office, where you have to wake up at seven, go to work at eight and then go out and get drinks with friends and then go to bed,’ she says.
‘In springtime, it's mostly planting, seeding, pruning trees, planting new trees. I usually don't have many guests, so it's a really nice time to spend some time with nature, with myself, to pick some flowers and wild herbs.
‘During summer, I have a lot of guests, so I mostly take care of them. I do activities: bring them hiking to the canyons, lakes, mountains and river. Autumn is preparing for winter – we prepare products for the winter, like jams, drying fruits, picking and drying herbs.
‘Winter is the low season. We reflect during winter about what we'll do next season. We mostly stay inside and sleep a lot – like the bears. We're living a fully natural process.’
While Elona managed to achieve her dream of living and working closer to nature, it isn't one that's shared by all young people in the country. Due to a lack of employment, Albania has long suffered from brain drain: in 2022, the country lost 1.3% of its population – mostly people under age 29 – due to migration.
‘[Young people] have this sense of: Oh, we can't do anything here. There's no future,’ Elona says. ‘What is the future? The future is something that you make – and, as a young generation, we have the power.’
She sees tourism as a way to provide a new perspective on Albania, for visitors as well as young people – an opportunity to build a life where it didn't seem possible before. She found that starting her own business provided a new perspective on ambition.
‘Being inside the box that is the western civilization, we're more and more afraid. Do I earn enough money? Is my future certain? Am I going to die if I don't have a big bank account?’ she says. ‘But, when you live in nature, you don't care any more about these questions. Because life is what's happening now, and [the] now becomes more and more important.’