Doing Business in Albania
Albania is located on the Southeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with Italy to the West and Greece to the South. Rome, the Italian capital, is only one hour away by plane and Athens, the Greek capital, is about two hours away by plane. Albania has a population of about 3 million people, with Tirana, the capital of Albania, home of more than 1 million Albanians. The second largest city is Durrës, on the Adriatic Sea coast, of about 200,000 people. The Tirana International Airport is the only international airport in Albania and has direct flights to most European capitals.
Albanians dress in European fashion and lively colours, with business attire being more casual than their European colleagues and their business behaviour more laid back. Albanians may dress casually for important meetings; women sometimes may dress in slightly revealing attire.
Business meetings may often take place in unconventional places, such as café houses, residential dwellings, as well as during taxi rides. Often not much attention is paid to equipment in conference rooms or other meeting places and these auditoriums may be smaller than anticipated for large and important meetings. Contacts are frequently made verbally and payments for goods and services are conducted in cash.
Albanians do not seem bound by time; lateness for important events, including business meetings and lunch/dinner parties are not unusual.
Albanians shake hands when meeting strangers and they kiss or hug the men and women they consider close acquaintances or good friends. Sometimes these circles will include the potential foreign business partners they have just met. Business cards are not mandatory and there is no custom of exchanging business cards at either the beginning or the end of a meeting. Assistants, secretaries and/or interpreters may not be introduced. Sometimes, especially when meeting high officials outside their own offices, bodyguards may accompany these officials up to the door of the meeting venue and may often wait immediately outside this door.
Most young Albanians (younger than 35 years old) speak fluent English and often other languages, mainly Italian. Most government officials speak English or some other European language (French, Italian, German, and Greek) to some extent. However, this may not always be true with private enterprises. In any case, interpreters are widely used for any types of meetings, sometimes the interpreter being the assistant or the secretary of the Albanian entrepreneur/businessman. Contracts can be made verbally and/or in written form. Albanians do not like much paperwork and try to keep things simple. Also, private businesses have very few layers of bureaucracy and the same person may serve as a manager, point of contact, secretary, accountant, as well as driver for a given company. There are many able Albanian translators and interpreters that may be hired at hourly or daily rates.
A nod of the head in Albania means “no” and shaking of the head means “yes”. This is very confusing; therefore it is safer to ask that your business partner verbalizes what he means when asked a “yes” or “no” question.
Bank transfers and credit card payments are possible, although most Albanians prefer cash. The Euro and the U.S. dollar are two of the most preferred currencies used for payments. In stores and markets foreigners may be charged more than locals, especially since most items may not have their prices advertised. Use of old and new “lek”, which is the local currency in Albania, is also very confusing and you should ask someone once in Albania for a detailed explanation. When shopping, it is better to go with your interpreter or someone who knows Albanian.
While Albanians love good food, at the same time they love to keep fit. You will rarely see overweight Albanians, although recently their number has increased. Albanian cuisine has been influenced by Greek, Turkish and Italian cuisines and the food served in Albania has many similarities to the typical food for these countries. Very few Albanians are vegetarians, therefore, it may be difficult to find suitable vegetarian food.
Albanians eat lots of meat; beef, pork, lamb, as well as chicken and fish. These will most likely be served at any business lunch or supper. Liquor is widely used in Albania and wine and beer, as well as strong spirits, will be served alongside lunch or supper. Albanians take pride in one of their most well-know spirit drink “raki” – (pronounced like “raikee”), made of grape juice and as strong as vodka – and will insist that their foreign guests at least try some of this drink. It is an offence to refuse and just trying some is, in most occasions, quite acceptable.
Albanians usually pay for their guests’ meals, especially female guests the first time they are having lunch or dinner with guests. They will insist that they foot the bill, even when you have invited them to your favorite restaurant. There is a tacit understanding that the second time, their guests are expected to repay this courtesy. Sometimes lunches and dinners are not planned and it may happen that you will be invited for lunch or dinner immediately after concluding a meeting, especially if something good, like the signing of a contract, came out of that meeting. This will usually serve to ‘celebrate’ what has been achieved in this meeting.
Besides lunches and dinners, coffees are very popular in Albania. It seems that everyone drinks coffee, although sometimes ‘going out for a coffee’ may mean that strong drinks like ‘raki’ will be consumed. Coffees take time and there is no such thing as a ‘five minute coffee break.” Sometimes having a coffee may take longer than an hour or two.
Gifts are very important for Albanians and mandatory for special guests. You are expected to give a gift in return if you have been given something. Money is never a good gift as it presumes you want a bribe or something illegal from the receiving party. Flowers are generally not given as gifts. Good gifts are generally works of art from your home country, such as small paintings, sculptures, and other memorabilia that will most likely decorate their offices. If you are aware that your potential business partner has children, a very good idea is to bring a gift for their children.
Haggling is totally acceptable in most stores in Albania. When negotiating your business with your potential Albanian partner, keep in mind that no offer from them is ever final until you have accepted it. If you are going to negotiate some items, such as prices, places of delivery, etc, this needs to be done before the end of the meeting, unless it is clear that these items will be discussed at a follow-up meeting. Albanians are generally reasonable and willing to negotiate and accommodate their business partners.
Cultural awareness and conversation
Albanians are aware of their problems and they like their foreign friends to point them out. Women in Albania are usually considered as belonging to someone if they have a boyfriend, fiancé or husband and flirting or even remotely indicating an interest in them (for example by saying to someone, “Your girlfriend is very beautiful”) may cause very unexpected and unpleasant situations. It is wise to refrain from any comments about someone’s wife, fiancée or girlfriend.
Politics is another issue to avoid talking about to Albanians. In Albania everyone is very passionate about their political beliefs and one of the fastest ways to infuriate your potential business partner is unknowingly insulting his favorite politician or political party. Albanians, however, may initiate political conversations and in these cases you may engage in exchanges of information about the political system in your country, especially if you are from a country which is geographically remote from Albania.
Smoking is allowed in public and in most restaurants, which typically will not have a non-smoking section. Sometimes it may be considered an insult to ask your business partner to put out their cigarettes, especially if they are already smoking them. If the meeting takes place in your company’s office, then you may choose to display “NO SMOKING” signs in advance of your business partner’s visit.
Homosexuality in Albania, although legal, is not fully accepted and it is looked down upon by most people as a sign of weakness and even sickness.
Albania is considered a Muslim country, with 70 percent of the population belonging to this religion. However, most of this Muslim population are Muslims because of their family origins and traditions and not because of choice. Albanian Muslims do not have any of the characteristics of the Muslim religion in the Arab countries, such as the teachings, the attendance in mosques, and the devotion to the practicing of their religious rites. Instead, Albanian Muslims gladly marry and cohabit with the rest of the Albanian population, which is 20 percent Orthodox Christian and 10 percent Catholic Christian. In addition, there are small numbers of Protestant believers.
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