NB: 23.07.2018 – we are launching this TODAY! But the ecommerce won’t be hooked up for a week or more, so please DO try to use the booking service, BUT follow it up with an email to me: email@example.com AND realize that you can’t actually pay anything online yet. But we’re getting there!
A Brief History (you can skip this!): Basically, JourneytoValbona started in 2009, from the business of Alfred Selimaj (Quku i Valbones, at Rilindja). This explains why today Rilindja still offers the most sophisticated service of any guesthouse, and as of 2018 is still functioning as the unofficial information center for the valley and National Park. For the first years, we took reservations by email for Alfred’s 3 different buildings: Rilindja, Rezidenca and the Farmhouse Hostel. In 2017 we evolved to having a pretty sophisticated online booking system (thanks – Little Hotelier!). In the meantime, under the auspices of our NGO “TOKA” we were also working to develop other, more remote and interesting local destinations, like Stan Visits in Livadhet e Gjarperit, the 150 year old farm of Tahir Avdyli in Kukaj, and the remote and beautifully preserved hamlet of Gjelaj – not to mention answering all sorts of pleas to help contact guesthouses in Cerem and Doberdol (No electricity! No telephones!). This work made us realize that the single biggest hurdle for all businesses in and around the valley is connecting with tourists. Tourists either don’t know (or have any way of knowing) that these places exist, OR they simply can’t contact them. This is a problem. It’s a problem for the National Park, as we firmly believe that everyone who lives here needs to benefit from tourism, so that they will naturally evolve to being fervent defendants of the well-spring of tourism: our incredible nature and culture. And it’s obviously a problem for YOU. So! The solution was to start helping local destinations and tourists to connect. After experimenting with different solutions, we realized that was what was really needed was an entirely new version of the website, which would list ALL the accommodations of the area, and help people connect. Thus (hey-presto) JourneytoValbona 2.0 (which you are now visiting!) was born, listing more than 30 accommodations, and offering booking access to over 900 beds (yikes!). This also explains why Alfred’s businesses are the 3 which are still “featured” – because really none of this would have happened without him, and JourneytoValbona is still most closely linked with these. In case you were wondering.
How Booking Works (this is where it gets important!): Walk with me through this, because it’s all new, and we’re still figuring it out – and your feedback counts and is welcome. The first thing to realize is that JourneytoValbona is not in any way supported financially – it’s grown naturally out of a perceived need, and for the first 7 years has been a volunteer effort. It’s been fun! We’ve learned a lot! But at this point it’s turned into a pretty time-consuming and complicated effort, and we need to start generating some self-sustaining income. The second thing to realize is that although we hope that the new website will make it easy for you to learn about all the wonderful neighborhoods and accommodation options, and make it easy for you to request a booking, it’s still pretty difficult to connect with most of these places – even for us! Most people here: don’t have internet, don’t know how to use computers and don’t speak English. Half of them don’t even have telephones regularly! – so when you request a booking here it doesn’t mean it just beautifully gets forwarded to them, or to some organized/computerized booking system serving each house. It means someone working for JourneytoValbona is going to have to start a potentially complicated process – usually in Albanian – of contacting each house (often via Facebook, Viber or SMS), waiting for responses, following up and maybe even remembering to reconfirm. I mean this – each booking may take several days to confirm, and repeated contacts. Ie, it’s still a lot of work on our end. The third thing to realize is – booking here does NOT mean that your booking is absolutely confirmed! Since we still have to contact the house personally, and confirm directly with them. The Big Question: Can we keep up with this, for 30+ houses and 900 beds? I honestly don’t know, but a) we’re going to try and b) I really, really hope that someday soon this can turn into some nice jobs for local young people who’ve learned some other languages, and want to work in tourism – wouldn’t that be super? But before we can offer this, we need to make the system work and generate a modest income to pay them. Now you know, that’s the dream.
What All This Means for YOU (Voila! The really important part!): #1: You are welcome to use the accommodation listings just to find businesses and try to connect with them yourself. For businesses which have their own booking systems, we link to those, and encourage you to contact them directly. Unlike services like booking.com, we do not try to make it hard for you to contact them, or push you to using our service. #2: If you nonetheless WANT us to make the booking for you – either because you like us and want to support us OR (more likely) because most places are still just bloody hard to contact, we do charge a 10% fee. For most places this will be something like 2euro per person. #3: A challenge has been to figure out how to collect this. Unfortunately, e-commerce and internet banking are virtually unknown in Albania still, and so all of this has not been so easy to set up. Our lovely bank BKT says they can make this work in a week or two, but for now it’s all a bit of a leap in the dark. So please DO still email us, and since nothings set up yet (July 2018), you escape the booking fee for being such nice guinea pigs! In any case, if you don’t have a credit card, well, you can still email us, but if we start getting 900 emails a day about this, I have to admit we don’t know if we can keep up with it – but heck, we’ll try. #4: From our point of view, whether you get the booking or not, we’re going to have to do the same amount of work, so we are sort of imagining that the fee is non-refundable, or can be transferred to a second (or 3rd or 4th) option. #5: We really don’t want to collect (withdraw, and deliver) payments for accommodation – can you imagine how much work that would be, working with a community who mostly don’t have bank accounts?!, so for now please assume that you will pay the accommodation cash when you get there for the actual rooms.
And the burning question: Do you (or we?) really have to deal with any of this? Well, you CAN find accommodations you like the look of, and try just turning up here and finding them – see if they have a room available! I’ll just devote a few more minutes to explaining why this might not be the best “Plan A.” First of all, Valbona is not a single village – it’s a 20km long stretch of valley, much longer when you include all the (wonderful!) outlying areas we’ve listed. So, if you arrive here with a list of “3 places to try” you may find yourself wandering kilometers between them. On a hot August day, this is not much fun. Even if you have a car, you may have to bumpty-bump over quite a lot of 4×4 track to get to some of them (often the nicest ones – from an interest, if not luxury pointofview). Secondly, it is not at all uncommon for all beds to be full in high season. Fine, maybe you’re not coming in high season, but in THAT case, there may not be anyone there at all.
There. That’s the idea. We really hope we can make this work for everyone, so please: Tell us what you think!
By the way: I think this is a nice place to explain that you wouldn’t be seeing this at all, if an awful lot of people hadn’t worked (for free!) to make it happen, just ‘cause they liked the idea: Emmanuel Malaj: Tropoja’s amazing website specialist, who built everything for free with unending patience, and tried really hard to refuse to tell me what it was worth. I still hope to pay him someday. Dutch ethnography student Jip van Steenis who spent her summer visiting every single house, often staying herself to “crash test” places, and befriending people everywhere along the way – also taking ALL of the photographs you see. I didn’t even know about half the places she found. And of course the people of Tropoja, most of whom still think a facebook page is a website, and don’t really know what we’re talking about half the time. Thank you for trusting us to represent you!