Kosovo Economy Faces Fresh Hit If Diaspora Stays Away

Hundreds of thousands of diaspora Kosovars normally take long holidays in their homeland every year, so their likely absence this year because of the health crisis will deal a fresh blow to Kosovo’s economy.

Arbnora Shkreta lives with her family in Sweden, but never fails to visit her native Kosovo twice a year, once in the summer and again in the winter. This year may be different, however.

With her father among those considered at higher risk from COVID-19, travel for him has suddenly become dangerous and Shkreta and her family are considering postponing their planned summer visit of five to six weeks, regardless of whether the country opens its borders with the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

Nor does she think it fair to risk placing extra strain on Kosovo’s under-resourced hospitals.

“It’s not ethical for us ‘foreigners’ to take healthcare places and burden the system,” Shkreta told BIRN.

If the rest of the Kosovo diaspora is as considerate as Shkreta, Kosovo’s economy is in for a shock.

Large Kosovo diaspora

An estimated 800,000 Kosovars live abroad, many of them travelling back regularly to visit family and friends in Europe’s youngest country.

Diaspora remittances are a mainstay of the Kosovo economy, but important too are the euros that diaspora Kosovars spend in shops, cafes and restaurants during extended holidays in their homeland.

According to the Central Bank of Kosovo, visitors to Kosovo spent almost 1.3 billion euros in 2019, around half of that sum in the months of July and August, the most popular period for diaspora Kosovars to visit.

Kosovo’s economy is worth a little over 8 billion euros, and hotels, restaurants, transport and retail – the sectors where tourists spend most – together accounted for 21.5 per cent of it in 2019.

Most visitors are diaspora Kosovars, but this year many fear they will have to cancel, or at least postpone, any summer trip they had planned.

“We really want to meet our families and relatives that live down there, so we might travel in the autumn,” said Shkreta.

Lavdi Zymberi, the South Sudan-based blogger behind Kosovo Girl Travels, told BIRN she travels back to Kosovo every summer and on at least one other occasion during the year.

Zymberi said she was still planning to visit “around mid-June”, but the chances were slim.

“I haven’t cancelled my trip yet,” she said. “Still hoping and wishing that I can make it.”

Tourism ‘hit since day 1’

With just a little above 1,000 confirmed cases and 29 deaths, Kosovo has begun easing a lockdown imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19, with the reopening this week of retail stores, dentists, beauty salons, farmers markets and others. Cafes and restaurants are now allowed to provide takeaway services. But it is not yet known when borders will reopen.

The government has imposed on the tourism sector a system of vouchers and compensation for postponed or cancelled trips. Already complaining of neglect, the tourism industry says it faces huge losses.

On May 19, Baki Hoti, the head of Kosovo’s Alternative Tourism Association, said his association had sent a proposal to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the recovery of the sector.

Kosovo tourism, he told Kosovapress, “has been hit since day 1,” alluding to the government’s closure of hotels, restaurants, cafes and tourist agencies among its first steps to confront the pandemic.

Hoti’s 3-million-euro development plan calls for a focus on cheap tourism packages, which he said a majority of hotels and tourist agencies had agreed to.

‘Nightmare scenario’

A March 27 report by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation estimated that Kosovo’s hospitality sector has a turnover of some 86.5 million euros, but will take a serious hit from the pandemic.

But in an interview with Radio Free Europe, RFE, on May 5, Finance Minister Besnik Bislimi said tourism did not provide “a significant economic inflow.”

While restaurants and tourism firms account for 6 per cent of jobs in Kosovo, “they contribute only 1.5 to 1.8 per cent of the total income of the national economy,” he said, citing the figures as evidence that Kosovo may make a faster economic recovery than many other countries.

Tourism, however, is a major contributor to the trade surplus that Kosovo enjoys in services, compared to the huge deficit it has in goods. And it started 2020 on a high, 27.1 million euros up in January and February compared to the first two months of 2019.

BIRN contacted the ministries of finance and economy, trade and industry about the contribution of diaspora Kosovars to the tourism sector and the steps the government would take to compensate for the hit to the sector, but received no reply from either by time of publication.

Shkreta, in Sweden, said she held out hopes of visiting later in the year, “if the situation is less critical”. But not if there was a second wave of the coronavirus, as some fear.

“A nightmare scenario would be if there came a second wave and we get stuck in Kosovo and can’t go back to Sweden to our jobs and schools,” she said.

Source: Balkan Insight

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