Thursday, June 22, 2006


I am often asked what image British people have of Sicily and what Sicilians can do to increase tourism. The one has to improve in order to augment the other. One word will come to the lips of most Britons when Sicily is mentioned; yes, you guessed it – “mafia”. They also imagine an extremely backward island of grinding poverty where everything is in decay. They know nothing of its natural resources, food, expanses of open country or its culture. Many of them, I’m ashamed to say, don’t even think of it as being part of Italy! Among the questions I was asked before I came [apart from, “Aren’t you scared of the mafia?”] were, “Do they have phones and internet?” and “Where will you buy your clothes?” Of course poverty exists here but professional people have a higher standard of living than their British counterparts and everybody seems to eat well. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the fashion shops, even in a small town such as this, are on a par with any that you could find on mainland Italy and technology is state-of-the-art, as you’d expect in the country of Da Vinci, Marconi, Volta and Zanussi.

Last year Modica staged its annual palio [medieval-syle horse race]* and I watched on TV as an interviewer desperately tried to seek out tourists to speak to. It soon became apparent that nearly all the tourists were from other parts of Italy, not further afield – well, I think they found one Japanese – and this is a pity both for the comune and for the potential tourists who are missing out on such an interesting place. So here is my advice to Sicilian mayors, tourist office and site managers , hotel and restaurant owners and anyone else who is listening!

[1] The single, most important thing you can do to encourage tourism on this island is, at tourist attractions, to stay open all day! Yes, I know you love your pranzo at home but it is no good telling someone who has got up at 5 am to get to you and who only has a day in your area to “come back tomorrow”. This happened to me once in Palermo; it had taken me ages to find the famous building in the heat – I forget which one – and when I got there at 12.45 I was informed, by the type of elderly custodian employed all over Italy for their ability to be unpleasant and hiss, that they were closing there and then and would reopen at 9am the following day. Even if you are going to reopen at 4 or 5pm., what is the tired tourist without a hotel base to do until that time, if everything else is closed as well? You can’t make your restaurant lunch last that long! I read a few months back that, even at a site as renowned as the Greek Theatre in Taormina, they are closing on some afternoons because they can’t afford to pay the staff! Come on, Sicily! This is ridiculous!

[2] Market the culture and market the island as part of Italy.

[3] Make places easier to get to! It is still impossible to get from Modica to Agrigento and back in a day, for example, and you cannot get to the part of Piazza Armerina where the mosaics are by public transport. You can get to the main town, but then you have to get a taxi to the site and it is quite a way. The first time I came to Sicily, I did manage to get to Agrigento and wanted to visit the nearby birthplace of the playwright Pirandello. What a palaver! I wrote in my diary of that time that “I found the bus but it went all round the suburbs on a circular route and took forever. I got to the Casa Natale at 12.55 pm but I pleaded with them and they let me in.” The Valle dei Templi in Agrigento is stunning, by the way; I wrote that “it took my breath away, like the first time I saw Florence.” And people in Britain don’t know it exists! – Nor will they, if the transport links to it are not improved. Even getting to less important places is not easy, because of the daft system for buying tickets: the Ragusa bus, for instance, stops at the tobacconist’s near the church here but you can’t buy your ticket there, oh, no! You either have to buy it in Modica Bassa the day before or you have to get off the bus at the terminus down there, run across the road to the bar to buy the ticket and run back! If this has caused me difficulties and I speak Italian, how do you expect the average tourist to work it out or do it? Also, make all bus stops more obvious and put some form of seating near them! It’s not rocket science!

[4] Get on with restoration work. We all know it has to be done but sometimes here it just stops! I’d been coming here for years before I could get into San Pietro in Modica Bassa. Spare a thought for the tourists for whom this is a once in a lifetime trip!

[5] With regard to food, most tourists who venture this far will be happy and curious to sample the local fare. However, if you are going to use foreign names for food, serve it in a recognisable form to an American or Brit! For instance, if you put something called “hamburger” on your menu they will look for the bun! And warn them that a “bistecca” isn’t going to be like the steak they get at home. [The nearest you can get to that is the “fiorentina” cut.] Serve food hot, not tepid, stock spirits in all eateries and switch the heating on in them in winter!

Attend to these matters or the British, in particular, will declare that it was “very nice but I wouldn’t go again” and the following year they will return to Spain, where they feel looked after.

I don’t want the place to become like the Costa Brava but if you want tourists you do have to pay some attention to what tourists want, and make these things easier for them to obtain. I reckon anyone serving an English or American-style breakfast could make a fortune!

*I gather that this year there will not be a horse race as a horse fell last year and had to be put down, but there will be other ceremonies and a parade of horses.

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