I was invited to attend a three day training on tourism this week. I, another volunteer and 12 Albanians boarded a bus yesterday morning for a three hour ride to the other side of Lake Ohrid. There we met up with another 12 Macedonians. Everyone was affiliated with tourism in some way.
The NGO putting on the meeting has a EU funded project to build networks and promote tourism across the borders of Macedonia, Albania and Greece. This particular meeting was about basic customer service and how to market to tourists. Yesterday was spent defining customer service. This is a real issue in Pogradec. Service people are not trained or even expected to respond promptly or politely. Getting a check in a restaurant or towels in a hotel can be a real challenge.
Today training was about developing better service, marketing that service and how to address customer complaints.
Much of this seemed so basic to me that I had to constantly remind myself that my biggest challenge in understanding another culture is my lack of awareness of my own cultural bias. I bitch about service, or the lack there of, in the states. I just needed to keep dialing back my expectations.
The other purpose of this meeting was to promote networking among the various attendees. This was an interesting process to watch. Hotels and restaurants are family run operations here. Each property sent a member of the new generation to this meetings. Read: young 20 somethings away form home for a few days. The older attendees, NGOS leaders, a couple of politicians, a couple of professors, were more sedate about the process, that is until the discussion of food came up.
Restaurants in Pogradec advertise their skill in cooking Koran. Koran is a fish found only here in Lake Ohrid. Living at depths only found here, Koran grows dense flaky flesh that is declared a great delicacy. Koran has become such a sought after delicacy that was put on the endangered species list 15 years ago. Fishing, let alone eating Koran is illegal in Macedonia. When a hotel owner in Pogradec’s bragged about the unique culinary skills of her chef, the Macedonians became irate. A hated discussion ensued and was left unresolved. There isn’t a simple resolution. Fishing for Koran is one of the few ways to generate income here. Hotel and restaurant owners insist tourists would not come were it not for Koran. Yet, UNESCO and the EU will not recognize/include Albania as long as fishing an endangered species is tolerated.
I gained a new appreciation for why Albania is having such difficulties entering the modern era.
NOTE: I have not eaten Koran and will not..ever. I will risk offending rather than eat an endangered species, even once.