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Tours and travel in Sicily.
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Tour Operators, Travel Concierges, Travel Consultants
What's the difference?

by Andy Russo

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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.

IMPORTANT: A num­ber of in­depen­dent "guides" in Si­cily offer ex­cur­sions (driv­ing you from place to place). Un­fortunate­ly, most of those found on the inter­net are not li­censed as tour guides, tour oper­ators or taxi driv­ers. This means that they probab­ly lack ac­cident in­surance that covers a client who (for ex­ample) in­curs an in­jury while walk­ing from the guide's parked car to an archeo­logi­cal site, such as the temples at Agri­gento and Se­gesta. Worse yet, some of these "guides" may de­ceive you into believ­ing that they are li­censed when they are not. In Italian law, on­ly a proper­ly li­censed com­pany qual­i­fies for the in­sur­ance de­scribed. In Italy the tour­ism/trav­el in­dustry is high­ly reg­u­lat­ed for your pro­tec­tion.


See Sicily.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? Let's talk...

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.

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© 2012 Andrea Russo