Eruption of fury at hotel plans for volcanic isles

Listed by Unesco as a heritage site of exceptional natural importance, the Aeolian Islands face ruin, thanks to a controversial new planning law. Philip Willan reports from Sicily
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The Independent Online

The black cone of Stromboli rises from the sea with smoke billowing from its summit. The scene has remained unchanged for more than two millennia, the length of time the world's most active volcano has been spitting fire into the Sicilian sky. In ancient times, the extraordinary landmark guided seafarers towards the Straits of Messina, the narrow channel between Sicily and the Italian mainland. One of 10 emeralds scattered on the turquoise mirror of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is perhaps the most striking of the Aeolian Islands, a natural marvel that has defied the passage of time.

The black cone of Stromboli rises from the sea with smoke billowing from its summit. The scene has remained unchanged for more than two millennia, the length of time the world's most active volcano has been spitting fire into the Sicilian sky. In ancient times, the extraordinary landmark guided seafarers towards the Straits of Messina, the narrow channel between Sicily and the Italian mainland. One of 10 emeralds scattered on the turquoise mirror of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is perhaps the most striking of the Aeolian Islands, a natural marvel that has defied the passage of time.

That could all change, thanks to a decision by lawmakers in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. The regional assembly has approved a fiercely contested law allowing eight hotels to be built or expanded on previously protected green-belt land on two of the largest islands. Pushed through by supporters of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the new law has outraged environmentalists and divided the centre-right coalition. Giuliano Urbani, the Culture Minister, has vowed to challenge the regional law in the Constitutional Court.

Fury has been all the more intense because the building work could put at risk the Aeolian Islands' place on Unesco's World Heritage List, intended to protect sites of natural importance. The islands have been a landmark to geologists and vulcanologists since the 18th century and have provided terms for two types of eruptions (Vulcanian and Strombolian). Unesco has already underlined their continued scientific importance: "[The islands] provide a rich field for vulcanological studies of on-going geological processes in the development of landforms."

The islands rose from the sea more than a million years ago and have been settled since Neolithic times, when tribes were drawn from Sicily by the presence of obsidian, a vitreous mineral. Since then, the islanders have experienced an apparently endless succession of invasions, from Greeks to Carthaginians and Romans, from Arabs to Turks, the last burning Lipari's cathedral in 1544.

The latest horde, and perhaps the most dangerous, bear buckets and spades and wear Bermuda shorts. They are drawn to the lush green vegetation, the vines and olive trees which fuel local agriculture, and the thyme and rosemary which scent the air. Fish and capers, figs, almonds and prickly pears give an exotic flavour to the local cuisine. And the distinctive black-sand beaches have attracted tourists for generations, contributing to a booming seasonal economy on the seven inhabited islands. Removal from the World Heritage List would prove a serious setback for the industry, on which the islands' economy depends.

The threat is real. The Aeolians could achieve the dubious distinction of becoming the first of Unesco's 788 sites to be thrown off the list. Francesco Bandarin, the Italian director of Unesco's Paris office, said on Monday he would be sending a team of inspectors to assess the potential impact of the assembly's decision on the delicate ecosystems. He said he had been surprised by the "grave" decision but was confident it would be swiftly reversed. "Sicily needs to improve its international reputation," he told the Milan daily Corriere della Sera. "It still needs to earn forgiveness for ruining the Valley of the Temples. They really didn't need this new initiative." (Modern concrete houses jostle against the Greek temples of Agrigento in one of the most scandalous examples of Sicilians' disdain for their island's cultural heritage.)

Removal from the Heritage List could have immediate consequences for the islands, which are clustered off the north-east coast of Sicily. Mr Bandarin said he had recently returned from a visit to Spain's Renaissance jewels of Ubeda and Baeza in Andalucia, which were added to the Unesco list last year. "Tourism has already increased by 20 per cent," he said.

The law voted by the Sicilian assembly last Thursday night says construction work can go ahead "even in violation of local planning restrictions". The decision was made more indigestible for environmentalists because it was accompanied by looser regional rules applying to people already guilty of violating planning regulations. Anyone wishing to take advantage of an amnesty for building-law violations can do so under generous new terms in Sicily: downpayment for fines is reduced from 30 per cent to 15 per cent of the total sum and the remaining amount can now be paid over four years rather than two. Illegal building is rife in southern Italy, and has been boosted by the present government's repeated recourse to amnesties in order to boost tax revenues. Police have mounted helicopter patrols to discourage illegal building but are often thwarted by crews who work at night and can throw up a new house within a week.

The eight contested projects are centred on the largest of the Aeolians, Lipari, which already faces overload at the height of summer. Up to 20,000 day-trippers can stream on to its beaches on a busy day. The stress has forced administrators to take a leaf from Venice's book and try to check crowds by imposing a €1 tax (70p) per visitor.

Where the villa of the late conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli nestles in the greenery they are planning to expand the Saracen Park Hotel: 12 new rooms involving three existing buildings being restored and three new ones built. Near the village of Balestrieri they are planning a new complex: 15 small apartments spread between three two-storey buildings. In Candali the historic Hotel Poseidon is due to expand. In all, seven of the eight projects are due to take place here.

Small-scale entrepreneurs are indignant at what they see as favouritism that smooths the path for large investors, while the small fry are subjected to the full rigour of the law. Silvia Carbone, the owner of the Casajanca Hotel, has been prosecuted for adding an unauthorised awning over her front door, and a neighbouring bar-owner was infuriated when officials reported her for occupying public land: she had placed two pot plants in the road to decorate the entrance to her premises.

Mariano Bruno, Lipari's mayor, says the vote does not amount to a green light for bulldozers and cement-mixers. The projects will be submitted to further scrutiny to determine whether they are compatible with the island's planning laws, he told Corriere della Sera. People have already invested heavily and a lot of money is at stake, he explained. Mr Bruno said he would organise a conference to examine the true scope of the projects and reassure the public that the island's natural beauty is not about to be scarred. "I will invite the Culture Minister and all the local officials who have railed against these development plans," he said. But he wouldn't be drawn on the conflict of interests facing his environment councillor, who also happens to own one of the development sites. "Now we're getting into the realm of personal ethics ... I certainly can't tell my councillors that they can't be entrepreneurs," he said.

Opponents of the new law say it will open the door to large-scale developments and destroy the rustic charm of the islands, where many families round up incomes by letting spare rooms. Green Party members have denounced the law as the intolerable result of an anomalous vote held at an anomalous hour which could destroy "one of the most beautiful natural environments in the world". Even the president of the Sicilian regional council, Salvatore Cuffaro, acknowledges that his mutinous troops have gone too far and has called a meeting of his centre-right coalition for today to discuss ways of repairing the harm.

Not everyone is critical, however. Supporters say the law will not produce eye-sores but discreet low-rise buildings hidden by vegetation and contours. One such is Pietro Franza, the owner of Messina football club. Mr Franza, who also owns a ferry company and around 20 hotels - one on Vulcano - says plans for modest development have been blocked by an unduly severe planning law imposed from on high. "It's right to prevent the building of monstrosities but it's a mistake to prevent 'sustainable development', to use a term popular in Europe," he said.

The last of the eight projects is on the north coast of Vulcano, still active and named after the Roman god of fire. Here, the plan is for a new hotel and thermal baths to exploit the hot volcanic mud. One of the three mouths of the volcano still emits gases, but Vulcano has had no major eruptions since 1890, when large blocks of lava were showered on to neighbouring Lipari.

Pliny the Elder described how an underwater eruption gave rise to the island of Vulcanello in 183bc. Some 500 years later, the new island joined its older brother, Vulcano, testimony to the dynamism of the Aeolian zone. That the area is continually moving was shown again in December 2002, when part of the flank of Stromboli broke off and slithered into the sea, setting off a tidal wave felt onthe mainland. The event was an alarm for those living on the island, particularly those in the hamlet of Ginostra: population 20. The village has neither police station nor church and the grocer doesn't like crowds: customers must take a number and wait their turn outside, to avoid creating confusion inside the shop.

The dilemma for the Aeolian Islands, which take their name from the Greek god of the winds, is to marry sustainable development with a fragile ecosystem in the age of mass tourism. The islands have never had difficulty in attracting visitors since Odysseus dropped in on his way home from the Trojan war. A natural film set, they have long captivated cinema audiences. Ingrid Bergman was wooed by Roberto Rossellini during the making of Stromboli and an angry Anna Magnani, the woman he spurned, retaliated by making Vulcano with the German director William Dieterle.

With this kind of backdrop there is no problem in drawing a crowd. The problem is finding somewhere to put them and ensuring that they haven't trampled the islands' mystique into volcanic dust by the time they leave. There is little doubt that more people could live on the islands. They boasted a resident population of 20,000 in 1891, but the effect of the Phylloxera fly in devastating vineyards and then an economic slump caused almost half the islanders to move - mainly to America and Australia. Few people seem to believe, though, that the Sicilian regional assembly struck the right balance over managing any influx in last week's nocturnal legislation.

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