SARANDE, Albania By closing Albania to the outside world, its Communist leaders preserved vast swaths of virgin Mediterranean coastline from unbridled development.
Yet trash and sewage from the consumer and construction explosion after communism endanger the pristine beauty that could fuel future economic growth through tourism.
The leading candidates in the June 28 national elections, Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his rival Socialist leader Edi Rama, both say they will tackle these issues if victorious.
Albania was Europe's poorest and most isolated country under Communism and people consumed little. Its opening to the outside world in the 1990s brought packaged consumer goods that led to a mass of trash across the country.
"This is a really disturbing reality. It's a new reality of a consumptive society," said Edi Rama, the Socialist leader and mayor of Tirana who is hoping to become the next prime minister.
"It is an absolute priority to clear the country from trash, especially the area with tourism which is very much out of control, especially for the seaside."
A traveler in Albania frequently encounters small random piles of trash by the roadside, with larger quantities sometimes dumped over cliffs or into rivers. In some spots, plastic bottles accumulate in rivers or along shores, although many beaches and mountains remain isolated and pristine.
Tourism has helped Albania to enjoy robust growth of more than five percent in all but one year over the past decade but as the global financial crisis bites, international officials foresee its Gross Domestic Product stagnating in 2009.
Other countries of the Balkans have problems with trash and sewage, but the contrast of majestic beauty of the mountains and sea with modern garbage heaps is especially stark in Albania.
Asked to described his country's garbage situation, Prime Minister Berisha, the country's dominant politician since the fall of Communism in 1991, responded: "Bad."
"We will have to draft soon a new strategy. Definitely a clean Albania is a top priority," he said in an interview last week. "We are building landfills in every district but I am not convinced it is the final solution."
Some officials point to some progress in recent times, including youth groups cleaning shorelines on weekends amid international efforts to help curb the spread of trash. Others say people even in developed countries such as the United States once widely littered until public campaigns on the issue.
If garbage is an obvious problem, the issue of sewage is often put out of mind, and many prefer to not discuss the reality of its end destination.
Environmentalists say Tirana's sewage goes into rivers, but when twice asked about the issue, Rama declined to answer directly, stressing instead the need to work with other communities on a regional plan.
Edmond Komino, mayor of the small southern town of Permet which is surrounded by mountains and has a river running through it, was taken aback by questions on the topic.
"You ask me as though I were living in an American state," he said. "A town can't be built in two years. This place dates from the 12th century and a lot of work is needed here."
He said sewage flows into the town's river.
As hotels have mushroomed along Albania's coast, few have given thought to sewage disposal and experts say the effluent ends up in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
"All of this development has not been controlled all these years and the problem has been critical," said Xhemal Mato, an environmental activist and director of Eko Levizja. "They are myopic, they see only to invest in the hotel."
A native of the southern coastal city of Sarande, he says his hometown is ruined in his mind and he would not swim there any more because of the sewage.
"They don't invest about sewage water because they believe it is the duty of the municipality. It turns back as a boomerang to the business," he said.
Berisha said the situation would change if he wins a second term in office on June 28.
"In two years, not a drop of sewage water will be got in our seas," he told Reuters in English. "Works are going on everywhere in Durres, in Vlora, in Sarande, projects are started. We need first to protect lakes and seas. Later start to rivers."
(Editing by Charles Dick)