When the island of Sicily announced it would be subsidising holidays this summer, the offer sounded almost too good to be true. But Sicily's local government has confirmed it will go ahead with a scheme that will pay for one in three nights at a hotel, as well as covering the cost of tours and museum visits
Now, as travel to Italy restarts, further details of the policy have been announced. This summer, Sicilian authorities plan to start giving vouchers subsidising travel to both Italian and international visitors.
“€75 million has been allocated for the advance purchase by the region of vouchers and cards to be distributed, for promotional purposes, to tourists, once the health emergency has ceased,” stated the Sicilian local authority.The policy is part of a 1.5-billion-euro recovery fund announced by Sicily's autonomous government on May 3rd.”We'll buy services such as hotel nights from operators, and we'll give them to tourists, Sicilians or not, who come to us,” Sicilian regional councillor for tourism Manilo Messina stated when the plan was announced in May.
At an online meeting of local tourism officials on June 18th, Messina clarified that: “the sum will be used for the advance purchase of tourist services, including entrance tickets to museums, hotel and non-hotel accommodation facilities, agriturismi (farm stays), travel agencies and tour operators, registered tour guides and tourism companies, to be distributed for promotional purposes by card and voucher in the months following the health emergency.”
A view of Scala dei Tiurchi beach, near Agrigento, Sicily. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
Tourists with vouchers will also be entitled to free entry to one of the museums and cultural attractions run by the regional authority, which has announced a total of 600,000 free entrance tickets, Messina said.
In Sicily, not only has the growing hotel and catering industry created most of the available new jobs in recent years, but local officials say the tourism sector's rise has helped ease the grip of organised crime on cities like Palermo.
But with incomes lost to the shutdown and fears of social unrest in southern Italy, officials now say these changes could be quickly undone.
Overall, Italy's tourism sector has suffered its worst financial losses in 20 years due to the crisis, with analysis by Florence's Centre for Tourism Studies predicting a 3.2 billion euro ($3.6 billion) drop in turnover for the industry in 2020.
“Tourism is the sector that suffered the damage first, and will start up again last, which is why we decided to support it,” said Messina.
Some 51 percent of Italians are planning to take a holiday this year, according to a Demoskopika study. Of these, 92.3 percent say they expect to stay in Italy. Sicily, along with Tuscany and Puglia, is among the most popular destinations for these travellers.
However, when the survey was published in mid-June, only 5.5 percent of respondents had actually booked a holiday for 2020. It wasn't clear how many bookings had been made for Sicily.
Italy's national government is keen to keep domestic holidaymakers and their money in the country this year, with officials hoping this will offset some of the lost revenue from international tourism.
To encourage this, the government has launched a nationwide “holiday bonus” scheme, separate from the Sicilian plan, which aims to allow low-income families cut up to 500 euros off the cost of a holiday within Italy this summer.
A file photo from August 17th, 2017 shows Italian families on the beach at San Vito Lo Capo, northern Sicily. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP
“Sicilian officials will hope the voucher is the final push that persuades people to book a holiday here, and not elsewhere, if they are booking one at all,” said Mario Platania, a tourism economics professor at the University of Catania.
“And it could help. A lot of people, Italians and others, who didn't struggle to afford their family holiday last year will now have to be much more careful with finances. To them, this could make the difference.”
The Sicilian voucher initiative would be “more immediately helpful than the national government's holiday bonus policy”, he explained, because Sicily “will pay the tourism structures involved directly” while the national scheme relies on tax credits, to be claimed back “at a later date, and with far more restrictive requirements.”
Throughout the shutdown and reopening, Italy's 20 regions have implemented their own rules and policies on top of those brought in nationwide. Sicily has more power to do this than most, as it's a fully autonomous region.
While none have announced anything as big as Sicily's voucher scheme, other regions such as Piedmont are looking at using discount vouchers for hotels as one possible way to lure back visitors.
“The scheme may not be right for every part of Italy,” Platania warned. “And that's not to say it will save Sicily's tourism industry. The island is facing a major crisis, and there are other elements to consider. The transport infrastructure was already in need of major investment, for example.”
Local tourism business representatives described the voucher scheme as a “buffer” and not a long-term solution to Sicily's problems.
“The vouchers and the measures for tourism taken by the region are welcome, but it is now necessary to think of a long-term strategy,” said Lidia Dimasi, Sicilian regional president of Anpit, the National Association for Industry and the Tertiary Sector.
“The vouchers are a buffer response aimed at mass tourism, not a concrete stimulus to recovery;” she said.
“At least two years will pass before we can say that we have emerged from the crisis, and in the meantime stronger measures are needed to support businesses and workers.”
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The Sicilian authorities haven't actually handed out any vouchers, as the island's Department for Tourism says it is yet to finish processing applications from travel companies wanting to take part.
A spokesman for the Department for Tourism told The Local the scheme is “already experiencing great interest at national and international level.”
“Since we asked companies to register their interest we have had a high volume of enquiries, and also enquiries from the media and members of the public in Italy and abroad,” he said, adding that the region had not yet launched its planned advertising campaign.
Despite numerous requests by The Local, the regional authorities were unable to give any details about the companies participating, the number of tourists who stand to benefit, or how exactly the vouchers could be claimed.
“At the moment, we're working on putting everything in place in order to have the vouchers available in good time,” the spokesman said, adding that the initiative won't just be for summer 2020, but could run until December 2021.
He said the department will be partnering with airlines to distribute the vouchers, but was unable to give further details.
While there had been speculation in local media that Sicily would also offer to pay towards the cost of flights to the island, flight tickets haven't been included in the final plan, he confirmed.
The voucher scheme is expected to work along similar lines to another, similar initiative launched separately in Palermo, the island's capital, by local hoteliers' association Federalberghi Palermo in partnership with the city's airport.
Their Fly to Palermo initiative offers four nights for the price of three at hotels in the area to visitors who book stays through the city airport's website, using a boarding pass from any airline.
Since it was launched on June 21st, “numerous tourists have shown interest and have booked their stay through the portal,” a spokesperson for Fedalberghi Palermo told The Local,
Further details of the holiday voucher scheme are expected to be published on the Sicilian tourist board's website in the coming weeks.