(More) Island Economies of the Mediterranean

Join us as we continue our island-hopping tour of the Mediterranean basin westward, with a focus on different islands’ histories and economies.

Photo by JU. Eisenlohr on Shutterstock

Starting from the easternmost part of the Mediterranean, in the previous article we had a brief review of the histories and economies of Cyprus, Crete, and Malta.

A few common economic themes stood out: being a safe haven for financial operations, attracting tourists from across the world, and even enticing longterm residents, which in turn works as a form of advertisement.

This week, we will focus on three other Mediterranean islands/archipelagos further to the west.

Unlike Cyprus and Malta, which are sovereign states, the three islands/groups we will review this week are each a part of a larger mainland European country. Although these islands cannot be regarded as island-nations, they are definitely island economies in their own right, with unique trading situations of their own.


Just over 100km to the north of Malta lies the Mediterranean’s largest and most populous island. Home to over five million people, the island is separated from the southern part of the Italian peninsula by the Strait of Messina which is merely three to five kilometers wide.

The island of Sicily was disputed between Carthaginians and Greeks during the Sicilian Wars (580-260 BC).

With the rise of the Roman Empire, the island became the new Roman Province of Sicilia, and with the fall of the Romans in 476 AD, it spent a few tumultuous centuries until the Kingdom of Sicily was established in 1130.

The island was finally unified with modern Italy in 1861. Although Sicily is today one of Italy’s 20 administrative regions, it is among the five regions which enjoy some autonomy.

Sicily is significantly larger than other Mediterranean islands, with large metropolitans such as Palermo, Catania, Syracuse, and Messina, which are home to large industries and businesses.

The semiconductor maker STMicroelectronics, food and beverage conglomerate Nestlé, and energy giant Eni Spa all have major plants or offices on the island, each employing over 10,000 people.

Such a robust business and industrial infrastructure set Sicily apart from the rest of Mediterranean island economies, which mainly rely on tourism or their status as tax havens.

Indeed, the island of Sicily with its GDP of over EUR90 billion is more similar to a developed Western economy than an island economy, though it is still behind some other regions of mainland Italy in terms of development.


This is the largest French island in the Mediterranean, with a population of 350,000. Although the island is relatively large, two-thirds of Corsica is covered with mountain ranges.

The island was known to ancient Greeks and even features in Homer’s Odyssey. It later became a Roman province famous for its wine and honey. After the fall of Rome, Corsica remained by-and-large part of the Italian-speaking world.

It was governed by the Italian-speaking Republic of Genoa for centuries, until it was consensually annexed by France under Louis XV in 1769. Corsica‘s most notable native, Napoleon Bonaparte, was born in the same year that Francizationin took place in Ajaccio, the island’s administrative capital.

Corsica has produced a disproportionately high share of artists and entertainers: figures ranging from Alizée Jacotey, who became a teenage Europop sensation in the 2000s to the comedian and filmmaker, Robin Renucci. As such, the island has a locally grown film and music industry.

However, like most other Mediterranean island economies, tourism is still Corsica’s number one source of revenue, accounting for over half of its EUR10 billion GDP.

The island economy has been successful in tourism management in that its climate has not suffered much from over-touristification so far.

The Balearics

The archipelago of the Balearic Islands is located in the west of the Mediterranean and to the east of the Iberian peninsula.

The archipelago is comprised of four large islands, Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera, as well as a dozen islets. Together they make up one of the 52 provinces of Spain—and one that is also an autonomous community. The capital, Palma, is located on the island of Mallorca.

Unlike other islands examined in this series, not much is known about the Balearics during classical antiquity, and the little which is known is shrouded in myth. All the major powers of the Mediterranean basin, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians have been to the island at one time or another.

However, Greek, Roman, and Arab sources alike have described the archipelago’s Catalan natives to have distinct habits and traditions of their own.

In more recent times, the archipelago became part of the modern Spanish state circa 1500 when the Crown of Aragon merged with Castile.

The Balearics’ economy heavily relies on tourism and little else. With a population of just over a million residents, the archipelago receives over 9 million visitors each year.

Each Balearic island has branded itself by emphasizing an outstanding aspect in its way of life: its picturesque mountain villages, its multitude of beach resorts, or its potential for yachting. Ibiza, for instance, has branded itself as Europe’s capital of water sports and non-stop partying.

The Balearic Islands have gone farther than any other Mediterranean island economy in touristification, by building an economy on tourism and leisure, which is reflected in their EUR30 billion collective GDP.

Ibiza is the westernmost island in the Balearics and the Mediterranean basin. And, here ends our review of six major island economies which began in Cyprus, some 3,000km to the east.