VJOSE-NARTE, Albania (Reuters) - Environmentalists protested over the weekend at the building site of a new airport in Albania's south meant to boost tourism but which they say will endanger sanctuaries for some 200 bird species including flamingos and pelicans.
The picturesque Vjose-Narte lagoon close to Albania's Adriatic seaside is a crucial stop for flocks of birds in their annual migration between Europe and Africa.
The government is building the airport just 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the Adriatic coast with pristine sandy beaches which the poor Balkan nation hopes will attract more foreign tourists.
"For those who think this airport will bring development, in reality this airport will bring only destruction," tourist guide Alben Kola told Reuters on Saturday as he and more than 100 environmentalists and ornithologists held their protest.
The European Union, which Albania aims to join one day, has said the airport project, launched in December 2021 and due for completion at the end of 2024, was undertaken in contradiction with national and international laws on protecting biodiversity.
The committee of the Bern Convention that works to protect European wildlife and natural habitats has said Albania should suspend the construction of the airport.
"This shows that this nature wealth belongs not only to us but to the whole of Europe and foreign governments are doing more to protect it than we do," said Joni Vorpsi, from the NGO Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) that has been fighting for years to protect the lagoon.
In November an Albanian court rejected a lawsuit filed by local NGOs against the construction of the airport but they plan to appeal.
Vorpsi said the airport, which would serve the southern coastal city of Vlore, not only would destroy avian habitats but raise the risk of aircraft collisions with big birds.
The Swiss firm leading the project, Mabetex, has said the take-off and landing paths of planes there would not affect bird routes. It said the runway would be 3.5 kilometres from the bird sanctuary and 5 km away from major bird migration routes.
(Reporting by Florion Goga, writing by Fatos Bytyci, editing by Mark Heinrich)