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This Italian vacation hotspot is turning tourists away as it runs out of water

Set atop a hill on the Italian island of Sicily, Agrigento is a heritage tourist’s paradise. Beneath the archaeological structures and relics of its Valley of the Temples lies an ancient maze-like aqueduct system that still captures water today.

But the aqueduct, and others built in modern times, are running so dry that small hotels and guesthouses in the city and nearby coast are being forced to turn tourists away. They don’t have enough water to guarantee their guests a toilet that flushes or a shower after a day out in the summer heat.

Sicily began enforcing water restrictions in February when the region declared a state of emergency amid a relentless drought. Leaky, aging infrastructure has only worsened the shortages, which have hit tourism and agriculture alike, two sectors crucial to Sicily’s economy.

Rationing is in place for more than 1 million people across 93 communities. Some are having to reduce water consumption by up to 45%. That means taps run dry according to schedule, and supply is shut off completely overnight in most places. Having enough water to drink is a matter of getting organized during the day.

On TripAdvisor and other travel forums, tourists are asking whether it’s worth visiting Sicily’s impacted areas. Hotels are warning clients about potential shortages, and are helping visitors rebook elsewhere on the island where restrictions are less severe or not in effect.

Tourists at the Temple of Concordia, an ancient Greek archeological site outside of Agrigento in southern Sicily, Italy. - Leisa Tyler/LightRocket/Getty Images

Tourists at the Temple of Concordia, an ancient Greek archeological site outside of Agrigento in southern Sicily, Italy. – Leisa Tyler/LightRocket/Getty Images

At the Le Cinque Novelle bed and breakfast (B&B) in central Agrigento, where restrictions are tight, the owners have put filters on their showers and sinks to save as much water as possible. But their guests often complain.

“Rightly, people ask us for reassurances before coming, but we don’t know what to say,” Giovanni Lopez, who owns the B&B, told CNN. “The situation is quickly impacting the entire tourist accommodation sector, which risks serious economic consequences, given that tourism is a sector almost everyone in this part of Sicily relies on.”

The Sicilian regional government has asked Rome for subsidies to import water from the mainland, but there’s no concrete plan to help the island as yet. The office of Italy’s tourism minister, Diana Santanchè, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but in April, she said Sicily should try to spread out its tourism season and avoid focusing solely on summer, when water problems worsen.

Summers in Sicily are becoming unbearable for many.

Last year, the island endured severe wildfires that forced tourists to evacuate or postpone their visits. Now the drought-triggered water shortages are another worry.

Human-caused climate change is heating Europe faster than any other continent, and Sicily sits right at the center of this change. It was here that Europe’s temperature record was smashed in August 2023, when the city of Syracuse hit 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

Other parts of Italy are also experiencing drought, but only Sicily’s is considered “extreme,” the highest level, according to the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA).

Less than a quarter of the usual rain fell during the winter across the island, which has left around 20% of underground aquifers in a state of “water scarcity,” according to ISPRA. In February, the regional government declared a “state of crisis and water emergency” for irrigation and drinking in Agrigento and four other provinces to last until at least the end of the year.

Marco Maccarrone, who owns the Caico Trattoria e Cantina restaurant in Agrigento, says the island is being left to fight for itself.

“The summer season is upon us and we are worried. No one has given us alternative solutions to the water tankers that we are paying for ourselves,” he told CNN. “This risks destroying the only resource we have: tourism.”

Maccarrone has lived in Agrigento’s historical center for 20 years and complains that the flow of water is painfully slow.

“In half an hour, we can’t fill a single pot,” he said.

Lake Pergusa in central Sicily is fed by rain and groundwater, and has no inlets or tributaries. - Fabrizio Villa/Getty ImagesLake Pergusa in central Sicily is fed by rain and groundwater, and has no inlets or tributaries. - Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images

Lake Pergusa in central Sicily is fed by rain and groundwater, and has no inlets or tributaries. – Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images

Hotels are obliged to have a certain amount of water reserves relative to their capacity, said Nicola Farruggio, president of Sicily’s Hotel Federation, which means they also have had to buy water from the mainland. But smaller structures, including family-run hotels and B&Bs, often don’t have a way to store enough to meet the requirements. And if they are located within a residential building, they are subject to the strict rations that apply to condominiums, which means they simply cannot guarantee water to guests.

Francesco Picarella, head of Agrigento’s Hotel Federation, who also owns a hotel in the city center, says years of ineffective governance have made things worse. There has been talk of rebuilding the water network since 2011, but little progress has been made, he said.

“Today’s problem is the result of a failed water management policy that has been going on for 20 years,” he said. “The hotels that have their own reserves somehow compensate; the B&Bs in the historic center are in extreme difficulty.”

He said that the reservoirs are drying up because of lack of rain but also leaks.

In response to CNN’s request for comment, the Sicilian regional government’s office pointed to a study that outlined government plans to drill new wells, build more pipelines and bring aging desalination plants back online. The report also says Sicily has not received enough funds from Rome to carry out its plans.

The local federation of B&Bs said that “it should have been a golden year” for Agrigento, which in March last year was named the Italian Capital of Culture for 2025, an accolade that typically draws more tourists. “Instead, word of mouth about the water crisis can ruin the season.”  

It was just starting to see an uptick, too. In 2023, visitor numbers increased by 24% compared to the year before, according to Picarella.

The island’s tourism ministry said Sicily was expecting to see over 2% more visitors than last year after many postponed their trips because of the wildfires.

“People see this destination with a lot of interest,” Picarella said. “This summer we are expecting a greater number of holidaymakers and every day we have to invent a way to move forward.”

Running out of time

The situation is just as dire for farmers. At an organic farm near Caltanissetta in central Sicily, around 50 kilometers (around 30 miles) northeast of Agrigento, goats are drinking a muddy sludge where a pond once was. Luca Cammarata, who owns the farm, said the drought means grass for grazing is also scarce. He’s never seen Sicily so dry.

The lack of water has meant farmers like Cammarata are faced with the devastating choice: cull their herds or let them die of starvation or dehydration.

Citrus farmers are also seeing their famous Sicilian oranges shrivelling on their trees from lack of water. The reservoirs used for irrigation around Mount Etna, where the oranges are grown, now hold around half the amount of water than they usually do. If there’s no summer rain, they will drop to around 25%, according to the ANBI Observatory on Water Resources, a government agency.

Sicily's oranges are withering as drought deprives the island's orchards and farms of much-needed water. - Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty ImagesSicily's oranges are withering as drought deprives the island's orchards and farms of much-needed water. - Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Sicily’s oranges are withering as drought deprives the island’s orchards and farms of much-needed water. – Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Over-development of urban centers and citrus and wheat farms have reduced the natural wetlands by 20%, worsening the problem, ANBI said.

Sicily’s regional president, Renato Schifani, said the island’s losses — between crops, empty reservoirs and dying livestock — have already topped €1 billion. That doesn’t even take into consideration potential loss of tourism dollars because tourists that can’t access water on one part of the island are rebooking in others.

But for communities in places like Agrigento, the losses are devastating.

It just as bleak for Cammarata, who says his whole livelihood — his 300 goats, 160 head of cattle and dairy operation — is at risk.

“The consortium used to guarantee water rotation every five or six days,” he said, referring to a farmers representative group. “Now they can no longer tell us if and when they will open the taps.”

The solutions are complicated, even for an island surrounded by water. The three desalination plants that could clean Sicily’s seawater for drinking, sanitation or irrigation have been closed for more than 10 years. Getting them back online, or drilling new wells, will take time.

And time is yet another thing the island is running out of.

CNN’s Antonia Mortensen contributed to this report.

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