Italy’s beach wars: how the fight for beaches became political – and physical


Every summer, millions of Italians flock to the beaches that line the peninsula’s coastline and to the thousands of private bathing clubs that are part of vacationing here. Yet these ‘lidos’, or beach clubs, are keeping both Rome’s parliamentarians and its environmental activists busy, as fresh controversy erupts over government reforms to open concessions on Italy’s shores.

After years of pressure from the EU, Italy’s cross-party coalition government has agreed to launch a tender for Italy’s private beaches by January 2024, with the reform passed by the Senate in May.

That means there will be public competitions to rent these lucrative beach spots, as well as other shorelines across the country’s lakes and shorelines.

While the details of the decree have not yet been voted on by the Lower House and are still pending, following the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the collapse of the government, Italian bathing clubs fear that such a upheaval does threaten the privileges they have enjoyed for decades.

In a new “beach war” that could be described as a multi-pronged conflict, Rome now finds itself fending off a disgruntled lido lobby and outspoken environmental activists in a messy fight over the future of Italy’s coastline.

‘We want our work to be recognised’: Italian bathing clubs cling to their beaches

Bathing establishments, or ‘stabilimenti balneari’, have a long tradition in Italy. Largely family-controlled and passed down from generation to generation, their rows of brightly colored chairs, umbrellas and wooden cabanas have become a staple feature of the italian coastline. For some, they are the symbol of the country’s economic revival after the war and synonymous with “la dolce vita”.

But the relaxed lifestyle also comes at a steeper price – access to bathing club facilities costs an average of €20-30 per day, and can reach €150 for more exclusive establishments.

As a result, these seaside lidos have been steadily pilloried for becoming increasingly unaffordable to the average Italian family and for exerting a stifling hold on the country’s coastline. They occupy almost half of its beaches and eliminate any possibility of competition. Even finding a lounger and umbrella to rent at the establishments themselves can be a challenge, as entire rows are often reserved for regulars.

Beach club licensing reforms could liberalize the market

But things could be about to change. As part of Italy post-COVID recovery plan, the government agreed to reforms that would force bathing establishments to reapply for their license. This runs counter to the objective of the European Bolkenstein directive in terms of market liberalisation. Until now, Italy has allowed the automatic renewal of beach club licenses, a practice that has strained relations between Rome and Brussels.

While such a system has been accused of fostering nepotism and an inaccessible market, it has also ensured that some of Italy’s 12,166 lidos are almost as old as the country’s constitution and have become part of community life by Italy. resorts.

Local beach club owners fear changes

In Varigotti – a picturesque fishing village on the italian riviera where the coastline is full of beaches – Euronews Travel spoke to a family business worried about reforms.

Opened in 1964, Bagni La Giara is a true local institution. Its customers have vacationed there for decades and it has become a magnet for Milano and Torinothe city’s affluent middle classes fleeing the scorching summer heat. They pay up to €60 a day for a coveted front row position and a private changing hut.

Bagni La Giara director Filippo Magliola started running the business in 2008, after his wife inherited it from her grandfather. While he agrees the beach concession system needs overhauling, he says the current debate over reforms is creating more anxiety in an already fragile economy.

“We are all worried about how this offer will play out,” Magliola confessed. “There is the risk that multinationals or unethical business owners want to take over beach territory, resulting in a depersonalized beachfront.”

Magliola cited energy drink conglomerate Red Bull’s recent acquisition of a port and island near the city of Trieste in northeastern Italy as an example of the future that could open to resorts across the country.

“Varigotti is enticing territory… it wouldn’t be surprising if companies wanted to get their hands on it.

Some say the reforms will threaten tourism and livelihoods

On the side of neighbor Bagni Valentino – who celebrates his 70th birthday this year – the patriarch of the family, Sebastiano Gambetta, also commented on the reform plans, while being a little less worried about the future.

“At Bagni Valentino we don’t see the reforms as dramatic,” he noted. “But some of our customers have been coming to our beach club for generations. Most other property owners in the region see this reform as a threat.

Those fears are shared by members of the country’s outspoken bathing establishment associations, who fear the reform could wreak havoc on Italy. The tourism industryjeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of people and lead to unfair competition as big companies seek to grab land on lucrative beaches.

Conservative politicians rush to defend Italy’s seaside business class

In the halls of Rome’s parliament chambers, such concerns have found a sympathetic ear among the far right, whose protectionist policies align with a desire to safeguard the interests of Italy’s seaside business class.

“[We] will continue to fight for the bathing establishments, because we are facing a clear injustice, ”said Brothers of Italy Senator Antonio Iannone. “The expropriation of Italian labor represents an intolerable activity of the Italian government.”

The politician derided what he saw as unfair media coverage of these bathing clubs and their owners, who were portrayed as parasites exploiting the system and charging exorbitant fees.

“This [media] campaign was obviously funded by the same strong powers that want to get their hands on [these] 30,000 companies that are not just numbers, but real people and values,” he said.

The party Iannone belongs to – Italy’s most popular conservative party – recently tabled an amendment in the Senate calling for beach clubs to be excluded from the new EU-mandated reforms. It was rejected on June 29.

But with the details of the economic competition bill still to be discussed and the government’s fate uncertain, the future of Italian beach clubs hangs in the balance.

“The situation is confusing…no one knows how these deals will play out,” Magliola added. “We have invested time and money in our businesses, we want that to be respected.”

“Our coastline is not a commodity”: environmental activists applaud

Another aspect of the beach controversy is represented by environmental organizations. They criticize both the government reforms imposed by the EU and the grip of the bathing establishments.

These activist efforts took a worrying turn in June after six activists belonging to an organization, Mare Libero meaning “free sea”, found themselves in a heated exchange with the owners of a beach club in the seaside suburb of Rome , Ostia. They were asked to pay to simply walk through the premises of the establishment and in the ensuing altercation, a member was pushed to the ground, and the police and an ambulance were summoned.

Founded in 2019, Mare Libero campaigns for free access to beaches and mobilizes against what its members see as creeping commercialization of the country’s coastline.

“We see beaches as a place where profit should not be involved,” Agostino Biondo, the group’s secretary, told Euronews Travel. “If we continue to treat our beaches as a commodity, in addition to having services at disproportionate prices and harmful to the environment, there is a risk [for the shoreline].”

Biondo quoted Barcelona seafront as a reference for the type of public beach model he wanted for urban areas. In places like his native Rome, bathing establishments occupy a significant portion of the coast, making it difficult for individuals to find free space to soak up the sun. In some seaside resorts, such as Gatteo a Mare in the northeastern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, the coastline is entirely occupied by beach clubs, with no “free beaches” (spiagge libere) available.

While Biondo hailed some aspects of beach concession reform, such as upending a stagnant system, he still noted some “critical issues” with the decree, including how it sidelines participation and concerns of environmental organizations.

“More than anything else, this [government] the reform was imposed by Europe,” Biondo said. “The Italian political system fails to realize that a radical reform of Italian beach management could transform the coastline, making much of it a real gem in a country that thrives on tourism.”

Biondo’s group does not hesitate to take its concerns to the streets – or rather to the beaches. On July 14, Mare Libero held a series of protests in 11 seaside towns across Italy to voice its criticism of the current situation.

“We want free access to the sea for everyone,” the president of the Rome section, Danilo Ruggiero, told us in Ostia. “You would have to walk 600-700m to find a public beach.” As he speaks, a group of tourists are seen changing clothes near a bench on the town’s pier, which Ruggiero enthusiastically cites as an illustration of the lack of open space on the beach.

In a resort town like Ostia, the bathing establishments are nothing less than concrete mini-fortresses, teeming with restaurants and swimming pools, an imposing presence on the shore. Given the date of the demonstration, an ironic and playful allusion to the storming of the Bastille is difficult to avoid.

“Concessions [shouldn’t] is passed down from generation to generation,” Ruggiero shouted into his megaphone, just yards from a beach club. “No to lifetime patrons! »


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