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This is part a series dealing with specific aspects of Sicily's travel and tourism industry. Other articles in the series are linked from
the Travel Agent Page.
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When it comes to international business, tourism (including various
travel services) is one of the few sectors of the Sicilian economy that
generates a profit or functions at all, the others being agriculture (production
of olive oil and
wine) and certain specialized
craft industries. Sicily's principal export, incidentally, is bottled mineral
water, which you'll find in Malta
and Saudi Arabia where desalination is the order of the day; yes, Sicily, where certain
towns have chronic water shortages, actually exports water.
Oddly enough - considering its importance - Sicilian tourism is not generally
marketed very well (something readily proven by the fact that you're reading
this page and not something published by a public tourism bureau). Leaving
that issue aside, let's say that you are planning a visit or tour of Sicily
for a fairly large group of people rather than just two or three travelers.
It may be a student group from a university, college or high school, or
a group of seniors. Perhaps it's a group from a large organization. Whatever
the case, you'll probably consider a tour operator, or "incoming
agent," to address your needs. That means suggesting practical ideas
(whether your focus is ancient archeology, historical or architectural sites,
mountaineering or hiking, food
and wine tours), planning your itinerary, providing costs of transportation,
guides, lodging and meals, and of course providing logistical support.
What we're really talking about here are services for groups, so this page won't be
of much use to you if you're an independent traveler planning to see Sicily with just your
spouse, children or a few friends. If, on the other hand, you're a travel agent or the
person responsible for designing a tour for a group of ten or more students or alumni, this page is for you.
To what kind of agency should you entrust your group's trip to Sicily?
Tour Operators: What's in a name? Plenty. The most traditional
kind of firm to handle your needs is a traditional tour operator. These
companies are registered with the local chambers of commerce (province by
province) and, among other things, insure most aspects of your tour while
you are here in Sicily. That means compensation if somebody in your group falls
and breaks a leg getting off a bus or ascending the steps at Cefalù
Cathedral. Alternate services (which we'll describe) can purchase such insurance
but are not always required by law to do so. Another point is that tour
operators have real offices, staffed with full-time personnel, as well as
"emergency" staff you can contact after hours. The best tour operators
have staff that speak (real) English. Some of these firms are members of
associations like the IATA and ASTA, though that's not mandatory. Better
tour operator firms are staffed with travel consultants (see below);
they just don't use that term. They won't tell you so, but most tour operators outsource most
of their services, the exceptions being those involved with mediocre "mass tourism" who
use their own buses, hotels, restaurants, group leaders and guides - but most of us wouldn't
want to work with those folks anyway.
Travel Agents: Around the world, this is an infamously unregulated
field, and nowadays the very term "travel agent" is imprecisely
defined (I know because I am one). Here in Sicily you are more likely to contact a tour operator
for your group's needs. In practice, your "local" travel agent
outside Sicily would probably work with a Sicily-based tour operator anyway,
so you can save the time, effort and money of working through an intermediary
by dealing with a our operator directly. Yes, most tour operators will work
directly with anybody planning a trip with a group. There is no "secret"
network here, despite what certain travel agents or travel consultants
in your own country may tell you. However, that's not to suggest that no
"secrets" exist, as we'll explain in the next section.
Travel Consultants: This is another incredibly unregulated field.
In fact, hardly any two people in the travel industry can agree on what
the term "travel consultant" even means! While there are a few
good Sicilian (and Sicilian-born) travel specialists in London and New York
, it's logical that one based in Sicily would have a better grasp of day-to-day
conditions such as strikes, archaeological site closures and the like. Like
travel agents, travel consultants work with somebody here in Sicily. True,
the internet has made it easier to plan
trips over distance, but it's amazing how much important tour and travel
information on this island never finds its way onto the Web - and that is
especially important if you're coming over with a large group. Here's where
I would really love to mention the names of a few international travel
companies whose specialists and concierges (beyond
Italian shores) rely upon "unknown" companies (here in Sicily)
instead of their "official" networks of local (Sicily based) representatives.
That's right; to meet customer needs these companies' travel experts in the US, UK or Australia
usually prefer working with Sicily-based firms other than those recommended by their employers!
One of these companies is a household name in financial services
internationally, a perennial leader in the travel industry with its own
team of concierges around the world; another (bearing an appropriately Italian
name) was founded in the United States as a network of independent travel
consultants. And yes, both are huge companies which, in practice, rarely contact
their own "official" representatives in Palermo or Catania when
they need specialized, personalized services for their best customers. Understandably,
they won't draw your attention to this "secret."
Tour Guides: These specialists are a great choice for a walking
tour or a simple excursion. It gets tricky when your guide is not licensed
or experienced, and some lack personality. See my tour guide article for a
fairly complete explanation. (This site also has a page listing a few
good tour guides in Sicily.)
Tour operators themselves outsource guides, and that's fine so long as the ones they select
meet your standards; otherwise choose your own.
While most tour operators have an established list of guides they prefer, don't be shy about at least suggesting - even demanding - to work with one you know
if their choice really doesn't meet your standards. Do I practice what I preach? Yes! I once "fired" an obnoxious tour
operator (i.e. I changed firms) because two of "their" guides had too much "attitude" and too little flexibility for
my taste. Put another way: My clients. My company. My choice. And much to the chagrin of that tour operator, I now maintain a fully-staffed
office in Sicily.
Alternate Services: If a tour guide offers to plan a tour for
a large group (let's say more than ten participants), you should ask if
he or she is a licensed tour operator. Frankly, it may not be a bad idea
to ask any "tour operator" if their firm is registered with the chamber of commerce under this
category. In Italy, simply being registered generically as a travel business does not a tour operator
make. Bus companies are fine for basic transportation, but they can't plan
an entire trip unless they're licensed as tour operators, which is rarely
the case. A cultural association (associazione culturale) may be permitted by law to offer a few specialized
itineraries or museum visits but (again) is not the same thing as a tour operator and therefore should not sell or promote
its tours or cultural initiatives as something they are not. Incidentally, even if one of these "alternate services" offered to
handle, for example, your group's hotel reservations, it is unlikely that they would get the priority rate or commercial tax deduction that a licensed
tour operator would obtain.
Non-Travel Travel Firms: A lot of people - realizing that tourism is one of the few
sources of "foreign" revenue in the Sicilian commercial landscape - have launched small firms dedicated
to "niche tourism" and the like. While this is a welcome sign,
some offer services that fall short in the area of quality or even things like accident insurance. Here a good rule of thumb might
be to plan your group's trip as far ahead of your arrival as possible, relying on the advice of the most experienced professionals you can find. My own
experience in this area is that some companies, restaurants or accommodations (such
as guest farms) look better on the internet than they do
when you arrive. Cooking courses are a good example.
Outsourcing - Who works for whom? As I mentioned earlier, tour operators themselves outsource
certain services. Okay, since it's no longer a secret, and it's not unique to our industry, let's call it the way it is: Most travel service providers outsource most of their services. That
being the case, you may as well join the club, beginning with the travel agent page.
There's no need to be paranoid. Just be careful.
About the Author: Andrea (Andrew) Russo has worked on the 'American' side of the Sicilian
tourism industry for almost twenty years.