REPORT FROM ITALY—The Mediterranean’s Southern shore is still burning. The Libyan conflict continues along with the flow of refugees fleeing the horror of war and famine. The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 113 kilometers away from North Africa; Malta is 288 kilometers away. For thousands of tourists who typically flock to these regions during the summer months, they are simply too close to the war zone.
No doubt the turmoil has affected Italy’s and Malta’s hotel industries, but while in Malta there are already signs of recovery, in some Italian destinations the tourist season is largely compromised.
Lampedusa, the island at the forefront
Lampedusa is a Mediterranean paradise to the north of the African coast. Lately, it is also the last hope of thousands of Libyan refugees that have poured into the island in fishing boats and small crafts. The increased number of migrants and asylum seekers on the island has raised tensions, as the international press reported extensively.
According to the Italian Civil Protection, people landing on Lampedusa are now being transferred to the Italian mainland. Each region, with the exception of Abruzzo, is giving assistance to refugees and migrants, also hosting them in hotels. In Lombardia, a region in Northern Italy, 18 hotel properties are sheltering people coming from Lampedusa. For each migrant, the Civil Protection spends approximately €46 (US$66) per day. This is not the amount received by the hoteliers, however, because it includes other services, such as social activities and language support.
“The situation is absolutely calm (now in Lampedusa). I told many persons to come here and to see. If there are migrants all around, I will pay them the flight and the stay. I proposed that, (really)”, said Mario Liberatore, deputy GM of Grand Hotel del Sole in Lampedusa.
According to Christian Del Bono, president of the hotel association, Federalberghi Small Islands of Sicily, and owner of Carasco Hotel on the island of Lipari, Lampedusa is ready to host tourists, but “(tourists) do not want to come. … Tour operators didn’t stop selling Lampedusa, but there is no demand”, he said.
The impact on the local hotel industry is extremely negative, according to hoteliers.
|Grand Hotel del Sole
“All the hotels are crying because of the consequences of what has been the ‘occupation’ of Lampedusa”, Liberatore said. “(Our) few guests are direct guests. They tell us people in the North have in their eyes the images of Lampedusa occupied (by the migrants)”.
Liberatore said the island destination is facing a severe contraction of bookings, losing approximately 80-85% of business.
“There is a little improvement for the second half of June”, he said. “More calls, more emails, but always (too little). If we look at July and August we have to shed tears on it”.
“(The impact) on the companies is tragic because all the entrepreneurs in the hotel sector invest resources for the (summer) season, making improvements and adjustments or buying (properties). They need funds (for that), from the banks, too”, Liberatore said.
Promoting Lampedusa as a safe and enticing destination is not enough to boost the sector, according to the hoteliers. The season is gone and the hoteliers now ask for financial support.
“After this season, which will go bad because (tourists) have been bombarded with negative information for months, the (hotel companies) have the winter in front of them … and this means no cash in anything (for a long time)”, he said.
A season missed means risk of bankruptcy, in no uncertain terms, Del Bono said. In February and March booking deposits come in and help to make property improvements for the opening and to pay expenses weren’t paid during the winter, he said.
In June the Italian government announced the allocation of €26 million (US$37 million) to relaunch Lampedusa and to establish measures partially granting the local enterprises’ requests with regard to the suspension of loans and payments. The Region of Sicily also announced the allocation of 16 million of Euros to support the hotel industry of the Pelagie Islands—Lampedusa, Pantelleria and Linosa. The resources will be available for hotel renovations and modifications for hotels on all the islands.
“In this moment, Lampedusa doesn’t exist anymore from a touristic point of view”, said Andrea Corso of Syracuse’s Grand Hotel Ortigia and deputy president of Asshotel. “It has been completely abandoned … Sicily doesn’t exist anymore, too”.
The North African crisis also is affecting tourism to Sicily and impacting hotel performance on the small islands of Southern Italy, some of which are very far from Lampedusa.
“The war in Libya had negative repercussions for sure”, Del Bono said. “There are (more critical destinations): Lampedusa at the top; but also the poor Pantelleria, because when (the press), says that fighter planes depart from Pantelleria, people think, ‘Why should I go there (on holiday)’”, he said.
The Eolie Islands are archipelagos off the North coast of Sicily, visited each year by 2 million to 2.5 million tourists, according to Del Bono. There are approximately 6,200 beds, managed mainly by small and medium enterprises. The Eolie islands, where Del Bono operates, are suffering the consequences of the North African turmoil.
"This war brought cancellations of groups (in our islands), too”, he said. “(That happened) in my property, too. Also with Italian groups. With regard to foreigners, as soon as the war sparked off, the bookings fell off. In a large part of Sicily there has been a stop of bookings. … The impact on islands is greater. (They) are harder to reach and to leave. … If you want to go on holiday, you do not go on an island in front of Africa. And for the foreign tourists, Sicily is in front of Africa, (not making any distinction among) Lampedusa, Pantelleria, the Eolie islands or the Egadi”, he said.
“For those islands tourism is everything; it is the 90% (of their economies), because fishing is reduced to the lowest terms and agriculture has disappeared. In the Eolie islands the industry of pumice stone (is in crisis). Tourism is everything. Tourism or emigration”, Del Bono said.
“The impact has been negative also in the Egadi islands because of the Trapani-Birgi airport stop. It has been closed to the transit of passengers for a while. Now it is open, but only partially; that was a terrible beating for the Egadi”, he said.
Del Bono depicted the situation of the Sicilian small islands as critical, while according to Corso the overall impact of the war on the tourism of Sicily was extremely negative.
“The Western part is suffering enormously … Operators declare a fall of 28% (of visitors). People went crazy; they believe there is the war in Trapani”, he said.
The Southern-Eastern part is going better showing an increase in travelers of 15% to 20% compared to the last year, Corso said.
“And that’s saying a lot. … Even if the last year was very bad and to make comparisons is not (so proper. We recorded other peculiarities (of this crisis): The tourists that traditionally went to North Africa are now flooding here. This is happening”, he said.
An optimistic perspective
Sebastiano De Luca, president of the Sicilian branch of Confindustria Alberghi association and GM of Gais Hotels Group forecasted a positive season for Sicily.
“Sicily is recovering. We will recover very well, in my opinion … (We experienced) a slowdown in May, a freezing of the bookings because of the Maghreb crisis”, he said.
“Sicily is seen as a zone at risk, but people are (beginning) to forget what is happening in Libya and so there is a certain recovery, both from our traditional markets and from the emerging economies. I believe that from … June there will be a growth of 5-6% compared with the last year”, Sebastiano De Luca said.
“I have some properties and we are (beginning) to have bookings. … The recovery will be not only in the sea tourism, but also in the cultural one. Flows are raising and I hope that by the end of this year we will exceed the numbers of visitors of the last”, he said.
Malta is a country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and at the forefront of the North African international crisis, too. It is an island with approximately 40,000 beds and more than 1,000 properties. According to George Micallef, president of Malta’s hotel and restaurants association, the tourism sector has recovered quickly.
“We immediately felt the impact of the evacuation process. Bookings slowed down, particularly from countries … like, U.K., Italy and Scandinavia. Since then, when Libya (began not to be) so much high in the highlights of the media, we started seeing a recovery of bookings. Although there are still some effects because of media un-correct or exaggerated reports, saying Malta was used as a base”, he said.
Micallef explained that Malta’s hotel association advised its members not to lower the prices, but to win back the confidence of the market. The timely, effective and coordinated actions of all stakeholders played a crucial role in Malta's fast recovery.
“We (organized) a team of all stakeholders, led by the Tourism authority of Malta, to correct all the misinformation”, he said. The team did a massive campaign to inform the markets that the Mediterranean crisis didn't hit Malta and that everything goes as usual.
“In fact, we interviewed a number of guests that were here in Malta (coming from) different source markets. They speak for themselves. They did not, and at all, experience anything that affected their holidays. … We wanted to be sure to convey the message that normality prevails here as usual”, he said.
“The Government and the authorities coordinated good efforts to make sure that we used all the resources of our embassies (and) of our overseas offices to convey correct messages, and where possible, to even approach business providers to give them all the information necessary and to make them aware that perhaps certain information … was not correct …”, Micallef said.