This article was first published by our friends at The International Ecotourism Society, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their Your Travel Choice blog.
On the geographical map of Italy, at the bottom of the peninsula, lies the island of Sicily, which looks like a football being kicked away by the boot of the Italian peninsula. This might be the heartfelt wish of some Italians, mainly because of the island’s historic link with the mafia. I live in a quiet little village of Sant’Ambrogio, just five kilometres from a bustling tourist town. Founder of Sicilian Experience, I’m a firm believer that Sicily can become known as a haven for ecotourism and sustainable tourism opportunities, rather than for its Il Padrino (The Godfather) reputation.
My love of learning, travelling and discovering has taken me to many far-flung corners of the world. I’ve worked on projects to help build schools for Bedouin children in Egypt, and worked as a sustainable tourism consultant in the Central African country of Gabon. My family moved to Australia when I was seven years old, and all these experiences from my travels stayed with my as I returned to my roots in Sicily.
It was in Sicily, however, that I felt the sense of belonging, and it quickly became my obsession to tell the world about the unpretentious beauty of the land, its culture and its people and the relatively untainted village life. Sicily is a vibrant island surrounded by clear, blue seas and blessed with magnificent mountain scenery, ancient monuments and traditional villages where the local way of life has changed little since centuries ago. It is an island with its own unique character, still relatively untouched by mass tourism and Sant’Ambrogio is a testimonial to all this.
Through my website, SicilianExperience.com, I promote responsible tourism practices that support the local economy. By focusing on uniquely local experiences, I’ve worked to avoid promoting the kind of tourism that would turn Sant’Ambrogio and its surroundings into yet another popular mass tourism destination. Sicilian Experience provides the opportunity for keen travellers to taste the simple life of a Sicilian villager, and to experience the villagers’ day-to-day life first-hand through a ‘full immersion’ tour.
I believe that the ability to see the world through the eyes of a local is what travel is all about – otherwise you might just as well sit by the pool in your hotel and read travel brochures.
We don’t simply rent out villas and apartments to travellers. It is my mission in life to promote a personalised type of responsible tourism in this area. One example of the personal touch I’d like to insist on is the bottle of olive oil given to each visitor in the Sicilian Experience accommodation – olive oil made from the olives I picked myself from the trees on my property.
A bottle of complementary wine from the local winery is always on the table waiting for the tired traveller on arrival. Also available to each guest is an extremely detailed (explaining such details as how to get in and out of the barriers of a nearby supermarket!) information book with advice on what to do and where to go on the island, and encouraging them to shop locally and patronise local restaurants thus supporting the local economy. I also encourage travellers to leave their cars behind and put on their walking boots and follow some of my itineraries, trekking in the national parks of the Madonie and Nebrodi mountains.
More importantly, the villagers are involved in developing local projects – organizing the ‘best flowered balcony’ contest, fundraising to install elegant, wooden recycling bins made by the local carpenter, working with the local art school to develop a ‘folkloristic’ mural to paint on an unsightly retaining wall on the outskirts of the village.
The villagers have participated in Sunday morning walks through the woods and fields outside the village and on cultural excursions to different places on the island. There will also be a branch office in the village to be overseen by some of the local people so that they will have a direct say in their own local projects.
My latest idea has been to open up the Museo degli Incontri (meeting place for people to gather and share with each other) where visitors are asked to send something of their own homelands: a postcard, illustrated books or pictures telling stories about their own countries, in order to share with the villagers, most of whom have never been out of their country, ways of life in other parts of the world. This will be a great way for travelers who visit our area and learn about our lives to establish stronger personal connections with the locals by exchanging the sharing experiences.
It is definitely a long-term journey to put Sant’Ambrogio on the world map for responsible tourism, and cultural and social differences can sometimes be obstacles, but I continue to strive to overcome them by promoting the true Sicilian lifestyle.