In April 2016 the government of Albania confirmed that the way is now clear for international flights to land and take-off from Kukës Shaikh Zayed international airport in the north of Albania.
This clears the way for the operation of low cost airlines. Several have already expressed interest in flying to Kukës. These include Ryan Air of Ireland and Wiz Air of Hungary. Both of these have visited the site and inspected the facilities. Adria Airways, the low cost Slovenian airline, has also expressed interest.
This could have an important impact on tourism not only to Albania, but to neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia. The story of Kukës airport and how it got to where it is today is a very human one and goes back to the war in Kosovo, which started in 1998 and ended in June. During this time about 90% of the Albanian population of Kosovo was internally displaced due to the fighting and by some estimates more than 860,000 Albanian Kosovars were forced to leave the region. This created a desperate humanitarian situation and many fled to safety in Albania stopping just across the border with Kosovo at the northern town of Kukës. The UAE under Shaikh Zayed was one of the non NATO-alliance countries that provided aid to the region.
Kukësplayed an important role in the aid effort, not the least because of the presence of an aerodrome. It hosted tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence in Kosovo. The UAE provided assistance by building a refugee camp and a 200 bed hospital, as well as by sending shipments of food, medicine and other needed supplies. At first, aid shipments were flown from the UAE to Tirana, and were relayed by French army helicopter to the Kukës aerodrome. To speed up the provision of aid, the UAE then financed the upgrading of the Kukësaerodrome, building a tower and extending the runaway. Newspaper accounts from that time report that the upgrade was carried out in record time and that the new facility was managed by the UAE armed forces in cooperation with the Albanian government.Although the war ended shortly after the airport was upgraded, the need for flying in aid persisted long after.
In 2003 work started on the construction of a new international airport, capable of hosting commercial aircraft. It was completed in 2006 at a cost of $22M once more with assistance from the UAE. It was inaugurated in 2010 and named after Shaikh Zayed in recognition of the contribution of the UAE, and in particular for the relief efforts during the Kosovo war.