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Sicily and the missed opportunity of UNESCO heritage

by Mariano Maugeri

Sicily boasts more than a tenth of the 51 UNESCO world heritage sites in Italy, the country with the most places listed for their cultural significance. But this southern region is failing to fully seize all the business opportunities presented by its historical legacy, a study has shown.

The study by the Observatory on Tourism in the European Islands (Otie), commissioned by tourism sector association Confesercenti, showed that the number of foreign tourists heading to Sicily is on the rise and they now make up half of all holiday makers in the region.

That is leading to a notable increase in accommodation facilities such as hotels, restaurants and bed & breakfasts close to heritage sites, but there is very little business activity focused on culture and entertainment, the study found. This is a serious shortcoming considering the reasons why tourists are coming to Sicily: to visit its historical, cultural and architectural treasures.

Due to the attraction of these sites, one would expect a series of business initiatives in this sector. But the study showed that around the UNESCO World Heritage sites that were researched, these types of activities can be counted on one hand. So while traditional business activities abound, there is very little happening in terms of making the most of cultural assets.

An example is the Val di Noto in southern Sicily, where an abundance of associations has little to show in terms of results.

Paolo Patané, the right hand man of the mayor of Catania, reels of a list of associations: The South-East Tourist District, a public-private institution; the South-East Public Tourist association; and Cunes, the coordinating body of the UNESCO  municipalities of Sicily, which brings together 43 representatives of municipalities, to encourage mayors to explain their management plans and present themselves as a united voice in Rome and to the regional government in Palermo.

“The Sicilian political system has a strong tendency to make things crumble,” said Patané, alluding to the fact that in three years there have been five regional councillors for cultural heritage.

To further illustrate the institutional complexity, the eight municipalities of the Val di Noto have to deal with three supervisory bodies (Catania, Syracuse and Ragusa), the representative of ecclesiastical heritage and the UNESCO world heritage foundation.

Patané said it may not be a coincidence that “Val di Noto has not received a cent of the 2007-2013 European funds for strategic projects.”

Will Cunes manage to get all the municipalities talking with one voice?

Noto Mayor Corrado Bonfanti is asking the region for “an act of love towards Sicily.” The mayor says that in five years, 500 new economic activities have been launched, 300 of which are linked to tourism. And he adds that the area has seen one million tourists come to visit in eight months.

What mayors do not like to talk about is the lack of a technical structure that can turn political decisions into concrete action. Noto, along with Scicli, Ragusa Ibla and Modica, are draws for tourists who want to admire their late baroque architecture. But more remote places still see only a small number of visitors due to lacking tourism infrastructure and facilities.