TIRANA, Dec 13 (Reuters) - The World Bank said on Tuesday it had given Albania a $71 million loan to upgrade infrastructure in four southern towns to help attract foreign tourism but also urged local authorities to avoid unsustainable over-construction.
Ellen Goldstein, the World Bank's director for the Western Balkans, said infrastructure in the UNESCO heritage towns of Gjirokaster and Berat, the port of Sarande facing Greece's Corfu island, and the southeastern town of Permet would be upgraded.
"It aims to create tourism products, site management plans for the four cities and their surrounding cultural and natural heritage sites, and establishment of partnerships for tourism destination management," Goldstein said at the signing ceremony in Tirana, capital of the impoverished Balkan country.
But she borrowed lyrics from Canadian singer Joni Mitchell to caution Albanian authorities against over-building or wildcat construction, telling them, "You don't know what you've got til it's gone/They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Tourism contributes about 6 percent of Albania's gross domestic product, less than half of its European Union neighbours Greece and Croatia, Prime Minister Edi Rama said at the signing ceremony.
Tourism in Sarande, a haphazardly built Ionian Sea port, grew initially thanks to foreign day trippers crossing over from Corfu to visit another UNESCO heritage site, the ancient town of Butrint.
Luxury small private hotels have sprung up along Albania's Adriatic and Ionian sea coasts, but big resorts have yet to be built since land ownership in the formerly communist country has often proven unclear, putting off foreign investors.
Rama said he regretted that 25 percent of the requests for bookings received by Albanian tourism companies in 2016 could not be handled due to a lack of capacity. (Reporting by Benet Koleka; editing by Mark Heinrich)