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Luxury tourism, wine and food tourism, sustainable tourism: the future of Sicily

From “Sicilia en primeur 2023”, the reflections of research, companies and institutions on risks and benefits to the island from high-end tourism

Sicily is Italy’s most in-demand tourism destination - in a country that is already first tourist destination in the world in relation to its size, and is, in particular, among the most desired wine and food destinations - in a segment considered transversally attractive for all age groups. In addition, that so-called “high-end” tourism that is taking an interest in the Region increasingly demands to be able to enjoy immersive experiences, and the world of wine - capable of perfectly combining nature, culture and food and wine - can intercept this interest, offering luxury hospitality, thanks to the wide spaces and immersion in nature that it can guarantee. It is the potential that is already partly ready to be embraced: according to Assovini Sicilia, as explained by its president Laurent Bernard de la Gatinais, in fact, 90% of the wineries have a structure used for tasting in the cellar; 32% of them have accommodation with beds and 30% offer a catering proposal. The services offered are increasingly curated and diversified, thanks in part to partnerships such as the one with the restaurants of “Le Soste di Ulisse”, which brings together the best tables in the region, announced at Vinitaly 2023, turning into wine experiences that increasingly interact with the landscape and culture of the places. But is Sicily ready to make this enormous opportunity a driver of all-round sustainable progress for the whole territory? The risk of “green washing” and exploitation of resources without positive spillover effects on local communities is always just around the corner, but there is a widespread awareness, both on the part of the arriving tourist and of the Sicily that welcomes (also strong from the awareness acquired and flowing into the good practices set by the SOStain Foundation), that makes one look to the future with optimism in this regard. This is at least the feeling, collected by WineNews, at the conference “Sicily: Top Wine, Film, Tourism Destination”, which closed at the Radicepura Botanical Park “Sicilia en Primeur” by Assovini in Taormina in recent days.
A Symposium that saw speakers for the institutional part Laurent de la Gatinais, president Assovini Sicilia; Antonio Rallo, president Consorzio di Tutela Vini Doc Sicilia; Alberto Tasca d’Almerita, president Fondazione SOStain; Luca Sammartino, Assessore all’Agricoltura della Regione Sicilia, along with several experts and analysts of the tourism sector, starting with Roberta Garibaldi - president of the Italian Association of Food and Wine Tourism and vice-president of the OECD Tourism Commission - who analyzed the trends of food and wine tourism in Italy and around the world, also in relation to the TV media influence; Benedetto Puglisi - co-founder and scientific director of BeAcademy’s Master in Tourism Hospitality & Event Management - who explained the reasons why high-end tourism is taking an interest in Sicily, also from a wine-tourism perspective; and finally Lorenzo Meraviglia - general manager San Domenico Palace Four Season Hotel in Taormina - who brought his personal experience of many years in luxury tourism, also in light of the recent success of the TV series “The White Lotus”.
According to tourism anthropologist Duccio Canestrini, professor of Anthropology of Tourism at the University Campus of Lucca-University of Pisa, sustainable development has an interesting history with its declinations, drifts and omissions. Milestones-the 1987 Brundland Report of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the first world conference of heads of state on the environment-established the 3 basic pillars of the 3 “E’s”: Environment, Economy, Ethics. “This trinity over time has been watered down; economy has taken center stage, little has been done for the environment, ethical aspects, which translate into attention to societies and cultures, have been completely neglected. In luxury tourism”, Canestrini explains, “it is particularly evident when the so-called trickle down effect is missing-the trickle down: the redistribution of wealth, which helps the development of a local community without being limited to colonialism or the mere consumption of exclusive goods and services. Sustainability is also investment in local projects, but after about 50 years of preaching that economic and GDP growth does not necessarily coincide with development, we are still at square one”.
The initial enthusiasm led to a long period of so-called “green-washing”. “We have been talking for many years about the difference between “deep ecology” and “shallow ecology”, the difference between luxury resorts that use local communities as laborers and infrastructure that, instead, considers the benefit of local people. Developing land-based tourism”, Canestrini continues, “is certainly complex: it needs clear principles, consultation tables and a lot of time, otherwise it is just a colonial operation”. Sustainability is never easy, but it is the only way forward today. To date, there are very few examples of sustainable luxury tourism: there are certainly small, virtuous projects, but nothing universally shared on a large scale. Yet, despite increasing global awareness of sustainability, the segment attracts substantial funding. In all sectors, luxury is not in crisis: so many are turning to it because it is a happy and thriving and growing market. That being said, are we in Italy in 2023 able to direct with clear rules and stakes the resources that come from luxury tourism, to aspire to a type of sustainable development that redistributes wealth? Starting from the data shown at the Sicilia en Primeur conference, we asked the three players involved-research, private individuals and institutions-for their views on the subject.
Roberta Garibaldi-president of the Italian Wine & Food Tourism Association and vice-president of the OECD Turimo Commission-analyzed the demand side: Sicily confirms its supremacy as the best wine & food destination for Italian tourists thanks to the appeal exerted by food & wine, but it is also an important point for tourism from abroad. In the future it will be called upon to evolve and enrich itself, striving to diversify and communicate clearly and simply. Across all age groups, the desire to experience the outdoors and immerse oneself in rurality emerges strongly: sunset tastings excel (indicated by 66%), dinners in the vineyard (60%), tourist grape harvesting (46%), wine trekking (42%), passing through the new trend of foraging (46%). The wine world, in fact, has very good cards to play: vineyard events, food-wine or wine-and-art pairings, and collaborations with haute cuisine are highly valued experiences, some of which are already available. On the supply side, there is a lack of food-wine themed hotel facilities or country relais, compared to the demand (a 30% gap between available facilities, 19%, and expressed interest from travelers, 50%), and it is a segment worth developing because - Napa Valley teaches - tourism can cover up to 70% of a winery’s revenue.
According to Benedetto Puglisi - co-founder and scientific director of BeAcademy’s Master in Tourism Hospitality & Event Management - in Italy, tourism covers only a derisory percentage of wineries’ turnover, ranging from 6 to 12%. And as a result, the margin for growth is still high. “Investors willing to invest in tourism in Italy tend to target 5 generic points of attraction-big tourist cities (Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome); seaside places; lakes and mountains; Apulia; and Sicily-but Sicily tops the list of wine tourism destinations. Investments”, Puglisi points out, “are differentiated by segments, and those that target the wine world concern the highest range, because they are projects that spread horizontally, immersed in nature and with fewer, but larger, rooms available”. Sicily is thus known as a generic (wine)touristic destination, but it has a sector with strong development potential that lies in the highest segment of supply: wine tourism. A sector that, once boosted, could give a new impetus back to generic tourism targeting the island, triggering a sort of virtuous circle for the whole sector. But in what direction do you want to develop it? What meaning is to be given to the word “sustainability”?
Roberta Garibaldi, data in hand, is optimistic: “tourists today appreciate tourism that invests in social sustainability. It is a destination and experience variable that was born some time ago (and that the pandemic has accelerated), which touches more the chords of the wine and food tourist. Already in the world of wine, there are various examples of best practices from this point of view-such as Frescobaldi with prisoners in Gorgona-and they are spreading more and more, with different parameters. In short, today there is a great awareness with respect to the relevance of sustainability: according to the latest data from Reale Mutua and Confagricoltura, most Italian farms have already taken actions toward the three pillars of sustainability. Even the data from Fondazione Symbola”, Garibaldi explains, “show how Italy is at the top on the assessment of many of these parameters: foreign countries are watching us with interest. So let’s look positively on what has already been done in our country and on the dynamism underway. Sicily, which already has important records, is also pursuing another one with the sustainable projects of SOStain. Now, the tourism sphere, like the production sphere, must also develop its own identity and certification. For example, to date, there is still no transparent protocol linking hospitality to the winery: an interesting topic to explore. Luxury, then”, Garibaldi concludes, “is no longer that extreme spending capacity, demand for exclusivity and comfort: luxury today is among other things the pleasure of small things, the authenticity of local communities. There is a balance point between all these issues, which allows a balanced development conversion”.
But what are wineries’ perceptions of combining luxury tourism and sustainability? Alberto Tasca d’Almerita, president of the SoStain Foundation and head of the historic family winery, among the names that marked the renaissance of Sicilian wine, has an idea: “the trend according to which Sicily has become interesting for the luxury segment, in my opinion, starts from the theme of authenticity. The concept of luxury as a format, as a reassuring pampering, has changed: today people are looking for the ancient origins, the skills and wisdom of people or territories, the passionate evolution that keeps traditions intact. Luxury now seeks unspoiled spaces”, Alberto Tasca argues, “authentic rural areas, the origin of our history and provenance. Then the user has changed: there is no longer the 1980s-Nineties-Duemila ostentation of the wealthy American retiree, but the search for time, for spaces, precisely, for authenticity, driven mainly by young adults around 30 years old, who have the means and the desire to seek their own right space in the ecosystem in which they live. This change is much more structured and profound than it may seem and Sicily is intercepting it. However, this involves a great deal of dialogue and communication between the production sector and the tourism sector, keeping the two areas alive and in balance, not one at the expense of the other. We need to understand it, grasp it but not speculate on it”, warns Alberto Tasca, “because the risk of these accelerations in trends is that they destroy the real goal of sustainability by yielding to profit. I believe that today, sustainability has to be embedded within a multidisciplinary infrastructure where every choice faced has to be evaluated across the board. The most beautiful part of sustainability is precisely its multidisciplinarity, which allows for a thorough evaluation of all impacts-that’s kind of the key”.
Institutions also play a key role in directing a certain type of tourism, especially if it brings with it huge amounts of capital that can greatly impact the area where they linger. “Today in Sicily we have an institution such as the SOStain Foundation, with a specification that looks not only at environmental and economic sustainability (as in the case of the protocol for evaluating and enhancing agricultural labor), but also sets goals from a social and ethical point of view. Inside that specification there is already to everything, but institutions outside the foundation also need to be involved. Complicated issue, because obviously there are many actors in the field, but today the regional bodies have shown a different sensitivity than in the past”, admits Antonio Rallo, “made not only of words and announcements, but also of concrete actions. Like the support that has been granted to the entire organic system in Sicily because it was in danger, given the considerable investments and costs, both direct economic and indirect, such as the training that conversion entails for companies. Certainly awareness has increased, but nothing must be taken for granted”, Rallo again warns, “with respect to the new opportunities and risks that are emerging. The push is strong on the part of both consumers and production: we hope to be able to make shared policy choices between regions, individual producers and appellations, as recently, to achieve the best objectives for the area”.
Finally, in the age of communication, one should not underestimate the media, which can act as an uncontrolled detonator. Research conducted by Roberta Garibaldi in collaboration with Netflix has shown how interest in a particular destination can increase significantly after viewing content dedicated to it. A prime example of this is the huge return in terms of image (and bookings) that the TV series “The White Lotus” has had in the places where it was filmed: Hawaii the first season, Taormina the second (Thailand the third, about to leave), have had a huge impact on the U.S. public, which has flooded the two Four Seasons hotels with requests for stays, even to be contained. “What luxury tourists are looking for are experiences: food and wine have always been a part of that, but Italy and Sicily are also rich in culture, so we are able to create packages full of unforgettable proposals. Hotels today no longer simply sell spaces”, explains Lorenzo Meraviglia, general manager of the San Domenico Palace Four Seasons Hotel in Taormina, “but they sell personalized stories”, which Sicily can clearly still decide to channel in a certain virtuous direction. Luca Sammartino, Sicily Region’s Agriculture Councillor, is also convinced of this when he hopes that wine can become “a virtuous model created by wisdom and research, capable of telling the whole island. Sicily today is, in fact, a recognized excellence, a national pillar of the sustainable wine sector, with an awareness that must go beyond regional and national borders also thanks to wine tourism, an important investment to enhance the heritage of its nature”.

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