Sicily is stigmatised in many respects in that it is attached to its own historical and present day connections with the Mafia and this does perhaps do the island no justice in terms of tourism. Many holiday makers though have a somewhat unusual interest in the Mafia as a result of the way in which movies such as the Godfather, Scarface and Blood Ties, have popularised and highlighted the Mafia. The Mafia do indeed originate out of the island of Sicily and even though the term is now used for many groups in Italy and abroad, the word refers to the organised gangs specifically in Sicily. Whether or not Sicilians should use this negative resource to aid tourism is questionable but you certainly do see ‘Mafia souvenirs’ when for example, you do the tour of the old crater on the Etna volcano and enter the gift shop. The question some of you might have at this point is whether or not Sicily is safe to travel and apart from the Mafia, what other considerations might there be when travelling to Sicily.
The quite simple answer when thinking about the Mafia and visiting Sicily, is that as a tourist, you are extremely unlikely to ever see or have to deal with them. In whatever capacity the Mafia may or may not now exist (I do not know the answer to this) the system at least used to be that the gangs would tackle store owners and business owners and not tourist directly. The most probably connection you will have to the Mafia if you visit Sicily is to fin yourself buying a souvenir in one of the tourist shops related to them. Do not factor the Mafia in as a consideration when thinking about travelling to Sicily!
There are two real dangers that I feel tourist to Sicily have to consider and the first of these is driving. Unless you are Italian, you will find driving in Sicily very difficult, confusing and stressful. Pulling away at a junction often involves not a right of way, but tends to be a question of who is brave enough to go first. And if you take too much time to pull out at a junction, you will then also have to deal with the drivers behind you, who soon tend to start beeping their horns, given the very high level of impatience which Italian drivers have. Driving in Sicily (and many parts of Italy) is not for the faint hearted and if you decide to drive up an area such as the Etna, you will be driving roads which are confusing directionally. Unless you really love driving so much that you enjoy a challenge and want to drive in Sicily, then I would recommend to use a tour bus to go up the Etna and to see some other sites. Public transportation in Sicily is relatively poor so not having a car does create a dilemma, if your hotel is not next to one of the train or coach station, hence a rented car doe also though have its distinct benefits on this island.
Petty crime is not just specific to Sicily. Anyone who has been to Barcelona and walked down Las Ramblas will know that pickpockets and thief’s can sometimes populate themselves in high tourist areas. I warned a friend heading to Barcelona to be careful for theft on Las Ramblas and he thought I was exaggerating. Not only did he have his wallet stolen, but it actually happened within 3 hours of his arrival in the city. Barcelona is a great city but just like any tourist destination including Sicily of course, small level crimes such as pickpocketing can sometimes be common. Common sense prevails in that you can take certain precautions in Sicily such as:
Make sure also to have travel insurance to cover the duration of your stay in case of any theft.
The layout of cities such as Catania and Palermo is quite confusing and it can be very easy to get lost and this can mean that you might end up in some unsavoury areas. Using Google Maps to print out some street maps of where your hotel or other accommodation is situated is, is a great idea. I would also recommend to have maps pre-printed for the main attractions you plan to visit. Sicilian cities and towns tend to be less efficient in respect of sign posting and public transportation than some other European cities.
The people are actually very friendly and helpful, provided you approach them in a friendly manner. As with all destinations worldwide, a few words of the local language and it can make locals much more open to trying to help you if they hear even one of two words in Italian.
The British police often get criticised in the UK for being to aggressive but if you get drunk and cause problems in an Italian city and find yourself dealing with the Italian police, you will most likely find that they have a no-nonsense attitude. The police in Sicily and other parts of Italy are less tolerant than what one might be used to in the UK and drunken behaviour also is less common and accepted in a region which is more suited to food lovers rather than binge drinkers. DO enjoy the beautiful Sicilian wines and relax and enjoy the great food, the culture, the history, the people and the weather and relax on what is a wonderful island. Just be smart.