Madrid: Pity the 10,000 residents of Taormina whose small Sicilian city is now being turned into a virtual fortress.
Next weekend, the historic city and beach resort on the Mediterranean island will be hosting the G7 leaders from the US, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and Italy.
And Taormina will be under the microscope as the new US president, Donald Trump, makes his first overseas trip to the annual summit. The new US leader will be joined by other three other G7 debutants: French President Emmanuel Macron; UK Prime Minister Theresa May; and Italian Prime Minister Paulo Gentiloni.
“Yes, we are very proud that the G7 is being hosted here in Taormina,” says Gerhard Schuler, the proprietor of a Taormina hotel and a board member of the local hotel and tourist body. “All of the world’s media will be focused on our city, so it’s a tremendous opportunity to show the world exactly what this city has to offer.”
But before that happens, the summit means huge adjustments for city residents.
Schuler’s hotel has been designated inside the central red zone, where security measures have been put in place since early May.
“For the summit where will be 10,000 residents and 10,000 police, security and military here,” Schuler told Gulf News. “There’s quite a relaxed atmosphere still, but that will change once the summit gets underway.”
While there are reports that Trump will be staying on an aircraft carrier anchored in the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy, other Italian media reports say he’ll be helicoptered to sleep at Sigonella Naval Base, a US facility on the island in nearby Catania, or that he may indeed sleep inside the red zone.
“No one knows for sure,” Schuler said. What he does know is that his hotel, the Hotel Villa Schuler, and all other four- and five-star facilities in the red zone have been ordered not to book any guests during the week of May 22-28.
The summit is happening at a prime holiday time, and normally his 31-suite luxury hotel would be fully booked.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” he said, adding his hotel is 150 metres from where the main summit will be taking place.
Confusion over bookings
The confusion, Schuler said, stems from the fact that a single Rome-based company has been awarded all the contracts to deal with the G7 when it comes to accommodation and logistics. “We can’t book anything,” he said. “The company, EGA, will decide who stays where, but right now, I don’t know what will happen.”
As soon as the summit was announced for Taormina last year, Schuler contacted the German national broadcasting company and they agreed to lease his entire hotel for a week. With a single company now being responsible for all bookings, Schuler had to cancel the Germans and refund their deposits.”
He and his hotel board believe the ways things are set up now means there will be huge markups when it comes to delegations paying for accommodation and other services.
“Right now, it seems as if the only lasting thing from the G7 summit will be repaved roads and two helicopter pads,” he said, adding the hotel association had wanted the local congress centre renovated as a G7 legacy but that’s not happening.
“Suddenly, on the Easter weekend, one of our busiest times of the year, all the roads in Taormina were paved at once,” he said. “It was absolute chaos,” adding that tourists were furious and hotel staff had to carry luggage from abandoned cars hundreds of metres away.
And being inside the red zone means that deliveries to all businesses and shops must be scheduled now only between 1 and 6am.
“All these things are necessary but what is not helping is the lack of explanation or communication from the authorities,” Schuler said. “Normally now, the 80 hotels in Taormina have 5,000 tourists. That can’t happen and we don’t know how we are going to be compensated for this loss, if at all.”
At the O7 Irish Bar on the city’s main square, the staff there are looking forward to the excitement of the G7 summit.
“We’re inside the red zone so we all have passes,” Sudesh, from Colombo, Sri Lanka, told Gulf News. “There’s quite a bit of excitement.”