Sicily has problems with unemployment, corruption in local government and, in many towns and neighbourhoods, the Mafia still exercises a harmful influence. A corrupt investment climate keeps business away, which is why Sicily remains relatively poor compared to other Italian regions. Residents often can’t access employment unless they know influential people and young folk continue to leave the island to find work in the more prosperous north.
Sadly, tourism doesn’t automatically benefit the local population, since the Mafia frequently extorts protection money from hotels and restaurants. Savvy travelers to Sicily can take steps to avoid lining the pockets of the local Mafia groups, by choosing their tour operator and accommodation carefully (see below for advice). Litter is also a problem in large cities such as Palermo and Catania, and Sicily has a poor record on recycling compared to the rest of Italy. Fortunately, Sicily still doesn’t import food, relying instead on seasonal, homegrown produce, which means eating here is not only delicious, but local and sustainable, too.


The Cosa Nostra, which translates as “our thing”, is very much a Sicilian thing, too. This criminal syndicate is in fact a loose collection of groups involved primarily in protection rackets and dodgy dealing. Each group is known as a family and has its own territory, usually a village or neighbourhood. The Mafia is still very much in operation in Sicily, but you’re unlikely to know if you come across one of its members. There’s no uniform and, in fact, the coppola caps that Mafiosi used to wear have been appropriated by hipsters and members of the anti Mafia movement.

The Mafia hit the news when periodic killings take place, but tourists are rarely touched by this kind of violence, which tends to take place in the poor corners of the island. It’s the protection racketeering that goes on across Sicily and further afield that is relevant to anyone traveling here. Typically, hotels, restaurants and shops are forced to pay, and by using these local facilities you can, inadvertently, be lining their pockets. Mafia extortion money is known as pizzo and many Sicilian businesses pay it.

What you can do
In Sicily, the grassroots movement Addiopizzo was established in 2004 by local businesses, consumers and private individuals who refuse to pay the pizzo extortion money. It challenges the Mafia stronghold on local business by discouraging shop owners from paying pizzo, educating people and challenging cultural norms. Addiopizzo Travel is an offshoot of the project which tries to raise awareness amongst vacationmakers and helps them find pizzo free hotels, restaurants and shops. It also produces a pizzo free city map of Palermo that you can download from its website. Some tour operators partner with establishments that are part of the Addiopizzo movement – it’s worth asking what their line is on extortion and tourism.
Marta Marinelli from our supplier Exodus explains more about the Mafia:
“Sicily and the Mafia is a very upsetting association for most Italians and Sicilians, not because it is untrue but it is because it is often based on misconceptions, myths or simplified and superficial imagery coming from Hollywood movies such as The Godfather.

Mafia is a very complex subject and although it is often mocked or joked about outside of Italy (and unfortunately also within), it is very much a current and complex problem for this country. Mafia does still exist and operates not only in Sicily but across Italy and beyond. There are still clans, murders, extortion, corruption and so on. Most of the time, however, it operates invisibly, infiltrating various socioeconomic sectors and politics, so it is extremely unlikely that as a tourist you would come across or be affected by such activities. The occasional acts of criminal violence, such as mugging, which could affect tourists, do occur, but this is nothing to do with Mafia. Big cities in Sicily are no more risky than other big cities!

I encourage everyone who wants to visit Sicily responsibly to read and educate themselves about Mafia using reputable sources before traveling. It really helps to understand the impact that such an organisation had and still has on the socioeconomic structure of the region, but let’s change the (bad) habit of associating Sicily and Italy with Mafia superficially. Mafia is not a joke and it’s not part of the local folklore.”
To find out more, Marta recommends reading Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia, by John Dickie and Vendetta: The Mafia, Judge Falcone, and the Quest for Justice by John Follain. Or watch the film I Cento Passi (One Hundred Steps), about the life of Peppino Impastato, a political activist who opposed the Mafia in Sicily.


Sicily is mostly given over to agriculture, with almonds, citrus fruit, olives, grapes and the durum wheat used to make pasta carpeting it, but for all this greenery, it’s a relatively arid island. Its lack of water is one of the reasons behind its poverty. Both farmers and urban water users have long relied on scarce, non-replenishable groundwater, with average rainfall of only about 600mm per year. In summer, the Sahara Desert’s hot winds drive off rain clouds and droughts are frequent. It means water is a precious resource, and as such attracts the Mafia. Back in the 1980s, when Mafia was at its height, federal authorities often found illegal siphons in pipelines carrying water to cities. [1]

This water scarcity is further exacerbated by the presence of cruise ships in Palermo. In summer 2017, hundreds of homes in the capital were left without drinking water. This was partly due to emergency maintenance work but also because some 174,000 tons of water was diverted from two residential areas and loaded onto tourist cruise ships in the port. [2]
What you can do
Tap water is safe to drink in Italy, and we recommend bringing a reusable bottle with you, to cut back on plastic waste produced by buying bottled water. To help preserve this precious resource, keep shower times to a minimum and cool off in the sea, rather than opting for accommodation with pools.
At Responsible Travel we don’t support large cruise ships, which disgorge too many tourists at certain times of day/of the year, creating overcrowding in certain centers without benefitting the local economy substantially. They also damage the environment, with a poor record on pollution and waste management, and frequently don’t uphold workers’ rights. So be sure to explore Sicily from the land, supporting local businesses as you go and not by popping in while on a Mediterranean cruise aboard a huge vessel which pollutes the environment and drains the island of vital water resources. Read our stance on large cruise ships here.
1. Source: Earth Institute, Columbia University
2. Source: The Local, Italy


If visiting churches or convents, dress respectfully – no beachwear and not too much flesh on display. The food in Sicily is fresh, local and delicious, so be sure to eat in smaller restaurants, and avoid places where the menus come with pictures of the food – it’s not a good sign... Buy local food and drink produce whenever possible. Seek out food shops and restaurants where the locals go and shop in food markets, too, for the freshest produce.
When hiking, stick to established routes, in order to avoid causing erosion adjacent to existing paths. Don’t buy coral, pumice or obsidian as souvenirs, as gathering or extracting these items is damaging to the environment. There are numerous all inclusive resorts in Sicily, but they are best avoided, as they are not a good way to experience this island’s many delights, from its food to its ancient sites. Additionally, they rarely put money back effectively into the local economy.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Gandolfo Cannatella] [Mafia: SarahTz] [Local men: Giuseppe Bognanni] [Cruise ship : Carlo Mirante] [Market: SNappa2006]