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Jared Kushner's planned Albania resort stokes fear and hope in coastal town

Flamingos are seen at the Vjosa-Narte protected area near Vlora

By Fatos Bytyci and Florion Goga

ZVERNEC, Albania (Reuters) - Through binoculars, ornithologist Jon Vorpsi spies flamingos and pelicans that pause along their migration routes on a hook of protected land on Albania's southern coast.

Vorpsi fears the sight may soon end if Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner proceeds with plans to build a tourist resort in the area near the town of Vlora, loved by locals for its quiet pine forests, olive trees and walking trails, and where cows saunter along the deserted windswept beaches.

Kushner announced the plans last month, part of a wider investment by his Affinity Partners in the Balkans that includes another project on a nearby island in Albania and a third in a former army headquarters in Serbia's capital Belgrade.

Kushner, a former top aide to Trump when he was president, set up the investment firm after stepping down from the job in 2021.

The projects may boost local economies by enticing visitors, but they have come up against opposition from locals who fear they will harm the environment or, in the case of Belgrade, threaten sites of cultural significance.

Kushner submitted the plans weeks after Albania's parliament changed a law allowing the government to grant construction permits in protected areas for hotels or resorts rated five stars or more. He did not say then how much Affinity planned to invest.

"It is a great sadness to know that this zone will not serve the next generations any more," said Vorpsi, who works for local environmental NGO PPNEA.

"In 10 years this place will be a gray place with concrete," he added as he looked for new bird species through his binoculars near the village of Zvernec.

Kushner and Affinity Partners did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Since communism fell in 1990, Albania has struggled with economic and political instability and widespread emigration, especially among the young.

But its alpine lakes and untouched coastline have attracted growing numbers of tourists seeking a quieter and cheaper alternative to nearby Greece and Croatia. It welcomed more than 10 million tourists last year, 35% higher than 2022.

"TRUMP VILLAS"

Vlora's mayor Ermal Dredha welcomed Kushner's project, which includes yacht jetties, pools and exclusive villas, saying he planned to turn the town into a "high-level tourist destination" and vowed to not harm the environment.

"Without the investment how are we going to attract all these people coming here and choosing Vlora?" Dredha said.

Kushner's plans, which locals call the "Trump villas", are already making waves.

Real estate agent Flori Brahimaj said prices for apartments with a potential view over the planned project site have already shot up between 100-200 euros per square metre.

In Serbia, Affinity plans to finance a luxury project in central Belgrade that would include a hotel, apartments, shops and office spaces on the site where the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) headquarters stood until 1999 when NATO bombed it as part of an air campaign against Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.

More than 26,000 people have signed an online petition to protect the two matching buildings that make up a protected cultural site.

(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Edward McAllister and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)