Sicilian tourism, the ugly duckling does not turn into a swan

The answers of Sandro Pappalardo, former councilor for tourism of the Sicilian Region and today a member of the Board of the Body

Tourism and Sicily they represent, in the collective imagination, two sides of the same coin. The island has always been seen as a crucial tourist destination within the national and European panorama, yet the results obtained so far in terms of overnight stays tell of a different reality, made up of numbers that do not match up to a historical, naturalistic heritage , archaeological and cultural like the Sicilian one.

We have published the data several times, but it is advisable to refresh our memory for a moment: in 2020 6,661,191 overnight stays were recorded in Sicily (data from the Regional Tourist Observatory), against 21,730,335 in Bolzano (source Statistical Yearbook of the Province autonomous). To understand how important this comparison is, it is also necessary to remember the territorial extension of the areas in question: almost 26 thousand square kilometers for the island, against 7 thousand square kilometers in South Tyrol.

Is it all the fault of the pandemic, one wonders? Not at all. Because even in 2019, the last year before Covid, Sicily was forced to chase. 33 million and 684 thousand overnight stays in Bolzano, 15 million and 114 thousand in Sicily, or about 55% less.

This is the picture so far, made up of an island with extraordinary potential that is unable to relaunch itself properly. We have talked about the strategies of the Region several times, also with the Regional Tourism Councilor, Manlio Messinawhich focuses strongly on See Sicilythe promotional campaign launched last year with free nights and discounts on transport for those arriving from outside.

“I expect a 2022 – said the commissioner in an exclusive interview published last month on the QdS – in which See Sicily is fully operational, with large numbers that allow our region to extend the period of stay of tourists”.

And to understand also the role of Sicily within the national tourism chessboard, we also contacted the Enit – National Tourism Agency, to which we asked a series of questions on the sector, on future trends and on short and long-term prospects. The answer was Sandro Pappalardoformer councilor for tourism of the Sicilian Region and today a member of the Board of Directors of the institution subject to the supervision of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities and for Tourism.

The bogeyman of the pandemic has almost passed, now that of the war has arisen. What are the prospects for Italian tourism in this 2022?

“Italy recovers: the number of international airport bookings to the Peninsula recorded a +602 percent compared to 2021. 178,000 international airline bookings. And a facility saturation rate of nearly half (36.2 percent). The neighboring countries are those with which Italy has always kept the common thread alive thanks also to the easy logistics and the possibility of reaching Italy with its own means and considered safer in pre-pandemic times. The cities of art, closely linked to the big spenders long haul (long-haul travelers with great economic availability, ed), have been strongly affected by the lack of visitors, while a greater success has been emerging in outdoor tourism, declined also in new forms that combine comfort and luxury with life in nature such as glamping (the so-called luxury camping, ed) “.

What is and what could be the role of Sicily within the national tourism scenario?

“Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean with 1,152 km of coastline plus 500 km of the smaller islands. Tourism can only be an economic engine with 15 million visitors. It is the southern region that has recorded, in recent years, the greatest growth in arrivals and presences, the tenth region in Italy for tourist presences. Between 2000 and 2018 there was an increase in the number of beds of around 60% in Sicily, more than double the national average. Strong signals have come from the US market, where Forbes for 2020 had designated Sicily as the most sought-after European tourist destination by Americans and Chinese, potentially the first world market with 250 million tourists “.

Three of Enit’s functions include assistance and consultancy services for the Regions for initiatives and promotions aimed at attracting visitors. Has any initiative of this type been launched with the Sicilian Region?

“Enit, by statute, has – among others – the role of control room between the regions and does so through a specific instrument such as the Federal Council, which brings together exponents of the Italian territories for an open, constant and systematic discussion in order to achieve the homogeneous address of the sector “.

A curious fact: in the last pre-pandemic year the Autonomous Province of Bolzano alone totaled 33 million and 684 overnight stays (of which over 21 million in summer alone), while Sicily just 15 million and 114 thousand. How can these numbers be explained?

“Northern tourism is strongly linked to travelers from neighboring countries
like Germany, which tend to reach Italy by car and with a preference for active mountain tourism. In the pandemic period this trend has accentuated both for the immediate search for large and close spaces and for the comfort and safety of self-managed journeys. That said, the goal is to do better and more in logistical and promotional terms so that Sicily is also increasingly easy to reach. However, the island is perceived as a strong brand, with a cultural, natural, landscape, gastronomic heritage of uniqueness and extraordinary beauty. Universally recognized are the beaches among the most beautiful in the world, cities of art rich in history, breathtaking landscapes, a culinary culture that has been influenced by the populations who have found a home here over the centuries. An Italy first in the world for Unesco sites sees Sicily at the top with seven recognized sites
as a World Heritage Site conferred by Unesco (the Archaeological Park of Agrigento, the Villa Romana del Casale, the Aeolian Islands, the Southeast Baroque, Syracuse and the rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, Mount Etna, the Arab-Norman Route of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù) “.

Often, in our island, one gets the impression that it is not possible to adequately exploit the new ones
trends: from slow tourism to cycle tourism, passing through the rediscovery of villages or trips linked to film and television locations. Is it just a problem of promotion or also of services?

“A slower approach to tourism, with the maintenance of an intrinsic authenticity, is especially good in this historical moment in which we are hunting for the identity value of the territories. It is the moment of research and the discovery of lesser-known places and it is precisely the traveler who asks the tourist offer to be able to live similar experiences. If we want precisely from Sicily, a new distribution of flows can start with an anthropogenic load distributed at times of the year and in locations outside the phenomenon of overtourism (tourist overcrowding, ed.) “.

We have always heard talk of deseasonalization, but the Sicilian one continues to remain a purely summer destination. How could this trend be reversed?

“By putting into a system the enhancement of lesser-known places and the versatility of the island, capable of alternating inland with coastal areas with even short distances. It is essential to make the territories dialogue in order to outline common strategies. This is also the commitment that Enit is carrying out to create a profiled networking not only with international tour operators offering Italy and Sicily abroad, but also with local authorities that must implement sharing strategies “.

Is a diversification of the Sicilian tourist offer possible? If so, on which aspects should we focus more strongly?

“Covid has accelerated ongoing processes to enhance lesser known areas and to alleviate the anthropogenic hyperburden at certain times of the year and locations. Sustainable tourism invites you to discover the province. It is an important moment of growth for the territories, including internal ones, which can make their traditions and their hospitality capacity known at an international level. Travelers want to experience the area immersed in everyday life, taking home a wealth of real experiences, so no longer just mainstream stops and photos of churches but also forays into the daily life of agricultural villages, into dairy businesses – just to name a few – where there are the bulwarks of less narrated cultures or specimens of flora and fauna still unexplored by the circuits beaten by most. Tradition and innovation must dialogue to rediscover conviviality and rurality with tailor-made tours and lots of word of mouth in an innovative key, winning positive reviews on the web. A way to rediscover the territories but also to repopulate them. Sicily has already implemented high-impact strategies through the 85 million euro measure of See Sicily to increase tourism: a free night was given as a gift and many free services such as admissions to museums and excursions. This allowed for a multiplier effect on attendance. The stay went from 1.2 to 2.2 nights, which is also important to support all the Sicilian accommodation. Added to this are the other international events such as the Giro
of Italy with the departure from Palermo and the arrival on Etna and then the tour of Sicily. From this year the first sports tourism fair will also start in Palermo and at the same time the first sports tourism observatory will be launched with the Region, RCS and University. And again with Sicily and Cinema there was one
large participation of the Region in Cannes. Sicily therefore becomes more and more an attraction as a natural location for making films “.

The strategies in place, therefore, are numerous and stratified on several levels. Now we just have to wait, to see if they will be able to give the hoped-for results and make sure that that ugly duckling that has been Sicilian tourism up to now can finally turn into a wonderful swan.