Sicily paves way for £420m theme park project

Sicily is one signature away from becoming the site of southern Italy's first big theme park.

The island is not short of things to do. Visitors can explore ancient Greek ruins in Syracuse or Agrigento, head for Corleone on the Mafia trail, or watch fishermen re-enact the Mattanza, the ceremonial massacre of tuna fish. Or merely sprawl on a beach.

But by 2009 the island will have something for those who prefer their fun pre-packaged, with plenty of thrills and popcorn thrown in. Once it gets the final go-ahead, expected on 23 November, the island's first big piece of tourist infrastructure in many years will begin to take shape.

The name remains a secret, and many of the attractions are so far only tentative, some to be replaced with more fashionable ideas. But the basic facts have now been released.

The park is to be located in the centre of the island, 59km (37 miles) from Catania and 128km from Palermo, on the shores of an artificial lake near the town of Regalbuto. The site is vacant, the authorities are on board, indeed the regional government will supply 20 per cent of the funding. The authorities have promised to build 10km of autostrada, linking the park with Catania's airport highway, before it opens. And in a part of Italy where it is only natural to inquire about the involvement of shadier interests, a spokesman for the umbrella company, Atlantica Invest of Basel, insists that all the financing is totally above board.

The businessman behind the venture, Rosario Musumeci, left Italy to seek his fortune abroad, fetching up in Switzerland, where he worked in real estate and tourism. He has succeeded in persuading Swiss and other investors to pour hundreds of millions of euros into an island whose hazards for investors have been legendary. He says he persuaded the funders to drop plans to build a park in Turkey and choose Sicily.

The park will extend more than 280 hectares on the shores of Lake Pozillo in the province of Enna. It is expected to cost €624m (£420m) and take three years to build. The project will have an immediate effect on local employment levels, with 3,000 construction jobs on the park.

Once it is completed, 700 people will be hired. Mr Cavallaro hopes it will draw eight million visitors in the first five years.

Attractions so far mooted suggest that this aspect of the park has yet to get beyond the back of the envelope stage. Replicas of the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa and the Egyptian pyramids have been suggested.

One of the glories of Regalbuto, a town destroyed by Allied bombing during the war but subsequently rebuilt, is the mighty Mount Etna, smoking away in the distance. A miniature model of the same volcano is proposed for the park.

There will also be a model of the Monza race circuit, some facsimiles of historical Sicilian attractions, a Wild West township and a Swiss village - in a nod to the sponsors - with a house "made" of chocolate.

It sounds as if Mr Musumeci will need to poach some of Disney's "imagineers" if the park is to stand out as an irresistible draw. But the project will benefit from one trump card: blue skies and sunshine for most of the year. "Our studies reveal that at Regalbuto there are 27 per cent more hours of daylight than at Gardaland," Mr Cavallaro said, referring to a theme park on the shores of Lake Garda, "and the climatic conditions are a great deal more favourable."

Grey, rainy Paris is not even in the reckoning.

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