OPINION: Why Italy urgently needs to hike entry prices to monuments and make people pay to visit churches

It’s time for Italy to stop undervaluing its precious artistic heritage sites before they’re lost to neglect and underfunding, writes Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why Italy urgently needs to hike entry prices to monuments and make people pay to visit churches
At Rome's famed Colosseum, the underground labyrinth was recently restored with funding from fashion group Tod's. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In Italy even the most remote villages have a handful of churches and smaller chapels. Chiming bells are a regular holiday soundtrack for tourists exploring the country. Most churches date back centuries and are treasure troves of art masterpieces.

But what makes these sites even more alluring is they’re totally free to visit.

Italy boasts amazing basilicas and shrines without entrance fees – bar a few exceptions. A total of roughly 100,000 churches dot the boot, nearly 900 of them belonging to the Italian state, others to local authorities, regions, confraternities and parishes.

READ MORE: Six breathtaking Roman ruins in Italy that you’ve probably never heard of

Catholics argue that nobody should ever pay for a prayer and God’s house must never be shut in order to welcome believers at all times, but then it often happens that priceless masterpieces are vandalized by visitors and sacred relics stolen. Or, in the worst case scenario, roofs collapse due to poor maintenance tied to a lack of resources. 

If a church features unique masterpieces by Bernini and other great artists, and is in reality a ‘sacred museum’, shouldn’t people pay a fee to admire it, thus contributing to its upkeep? At least there would be extra revenue.

Italy’s religious architectural heritage is unique in the world and authorities should cash in on it. 

Politicians and governments have long debated whether it is fair and moral to introduce tickets. After all, Italy is home to the Holy See that wants an ‘open church’ policy.

There’s a totally different reality in the UK and Ireland. Westminster Abbey tickets are roughly £20 per person, while St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin charges €8 even if one just wants to light a candle and say a prayer – which causes debate, but at least there’s an income for the body in charge of maintenance.

One could argue that perhaps £20 is indeed a bit too expensive for a ticket, but €2 or €0 is ridiculous. If on one hand free entrance in Italian churches allows everyone to enjoy the mystical experience, on the other it undervalues it. 

The Madonna delle Virtu cave church and its ancient frescoes in the southern Italian city of Matera. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

Other southern European countries are doing a better job in making money from churches and top sites. Entrance to the mesmerizing Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, costs €27, while the Acropolis in Athens is €20. 

Italy’s church ticket dilemma is strictly linked to the whole problem of having a ‘cheap’ culture – which comes at a high price. 

Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in the world, yet doesn’t fully exploit these to raise revenue for the upkeep of its huge artistic heritage, a part of which is crumbling to the ground due to neglect and a lack of public resources. 

READ ALSO: ‘More local, more authentic’: How can Italy move toward responsible tourism in future?

Tickets to the country’s archaeological sites, museums, Renaissance palazzos and medieval fortresses are way too cheap when compared to the rest of Europe and to the world. 

Think about it: just €16 to visit three sites (The Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill); €2 to admire the stunning frescoed rock crypts in the ancient southern city of Matera. If you’re over-65 or under-18, in most cases entrance is free or reduced. Reporters never pay. 

The Colosseum is unique; people come from all over the world just to circle the fighting pit where gladiators fought against lions. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the echo of the bloodthirsty crowds cheering for death. The ticket price should be raised to reflect the ‘experience’ the site offers. 

Same goes for Matera: the cave-dwellings date back to prehistoric times. In the middle ages fleeing Byzantine monks took refuge in them and depicted sacred images on the cold, damp grotto walls. Entire families, with their animals, later lived inside these incredible places for centuries, up until the 1960’s. How can all this history and human life be valued at just €2?

READ ALSO: Matera, Italy’s city of caves, contrasts, and culture

But there are also hundreds of other lesser-known, yet just as beautiful, artistic spots which can be visited without spending a single euro.

Tiny off-the-radar villages in Tuscany feature artworks by Renaissance masters, and there are hills surrounding Rome with medieval chapels and healing fountains cited by Dante in his Divine Comedy that have fallen into oblivion.

The archeological site of Pompeii has undergone a major restoration project funded by the European Commission and Italian authorities. Photo by Tiziana FABI/AFP

Spooky ghost towns particularly appeal to foreigners, yet we prefer to leave them to rot rather than cash in with ticket fees which could be used to bring these sleeping beauties back from the grave. 

I was shocked when I recently discovered the archaeological site of the ancient Roman town of Norba in the Lazio region. It’s a small Pompeii, but in better shape than the real one: huge stone arched entrances, intact brick houses and breathtaking temples overlooking a green valley. 

There was no ticket booth, I walked in and even used the toilet – for free. So I asked: what can I do to help? A boy sitting on a chair humbly said I could leave a tip, if I wanted, as all the maintenance work was carried-out by volunteers. 

An Italian politician once said that “culture does not feed you”, meaning the arts and history are not a profitable business able to boost GDP. Truth is, without the needed investments and with low entrance fees to monuments, Italy could starve. 

In the long run, having ‘cheap’ access to art can turn out to be counterproductive.

Member comments

  1. As a person who’s traveled to many places around the world with work, I’m a flight attendant, and on my personal time. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. I’m happy to pay a euro to illuminate artwork in a church, but free admission is one of the (very few) things the Catholic Church gets right.

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Why are so many of Italy’s beaches privatised?

Many holidaymakers will have to pay for the privilege of enjoying Italy's coastline this summer, as the number of privately-run beaches keeps growing. Why are there so many, and is this about to change?

Why are so many of Italy's beaches privatised?

Golden sands, crystalline waters and rose-tinted sunsets – Italy’s beaches are rightly known as some of the best in the Mediterranean.

But if you arrive on most parts of the coast in August, you’ll find your path blocked by sea of umbrellas and beach chairs priced at anywhere between €10 and €50 a day.

If you want a free-to-access beach, you’ll usually have to walk some distance to a small patch of sand on the least attractive and accessible part of the shore; and in some parts of the country, the entire coastline is privatised.

READ ALSO: The Italian beaches you might want to avoid this summer

Italy’s private beaches aren’t actually privately owned – they’re leased by the state to private operators under a concessions system.

But with licenses handed down without question from one generation to the next and little available in the way of any alternatives, as far as the average holidaymaker is concerned, they may as well be.

How did Italy get to this point? And are things likely to ever change?

‘SOS free beaches’

Fewer than half of the beaches on Italy’s roughly 8,000km of coastline are free to access, the environmental association Legambiente estimates in its newly published 2022 annual beaches report.

A census conducted by the State Maritime Information System in 2021 (no data has been collected for 2022) found that there were 12,166 private beaches in Italy; a 12.5 percent increase on 2018.

Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genova, on August 11, 2011.
Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genoa, on August 11, 2011. Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP.

In regions such as Emilia Romagna, Campania and Liguria, approximately 70 percent of the beaches are privately run. In popular beach towns such as Riccione in the northeast, that figure rises as high as 90 percent; in nearby Gatteo, it’s 100.

“SOS free beaches”: the situation is an emergency, says Legambiente, whose members, along with those of the Mare Libero (‘Free Sea’) national campaigning network, have called on the Italian government to commit to making at least 60 percent of Italy’s beaches free to the public.

“The lungomare (‘seafront’) has almost everywhere become a lungomuro (‘long wall’), physical or metaphorical; a kilometre-long wall, which imprisons the sea and the beaches, takes them away from the territory, from the citizens, and hands them over to the interests and exploitation of a few,” argues Mare Libero in its manifesto.

The coastline should be returned to the community, the organisation insists: the beach “must be made available to anyone who wants to enjoy it, regardless of their economic or social status, regardless of their origin and culture.”

How did Italy get here?

Legambiente president Stefano Ciafani blames Italy’s out-of-control private lidos on the fact that the country has no limits on how much of its coastline can be privately controlled: “an all-Italian anomaly that needs to be remedied,” he sums up in an introduction to the association’s 2022 report.

Such a state of affairs would be “unthinkable” in nearby countries such as Spain, Greece or France, the report says, citing French laws that require 80 percent of beaches to be kept free of any man-made structures for six months out of the year.

MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

So why is Italy the exception?

Seaside resorts have been around in Italy for at least a couple of centuries, and beach tourism was particularly popular in the fascist era (Mussolini was a particular fan of the seaside).

Private beaches in Italy are now estimated to occupy more than 50 percent of the coastline.
Private beaches in Italy are now estimated to occupy more than 50 percent of the coastline. Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP.

But beach clubs really exploded in the country’s post-war economic boom, and for many they represent the ‘dolce vita‘ lifestyle that characterised 1960’s Italy – making them actively prized by some Italians, and at least tolerated by others.

A number of concessions that were first assigned to World War I veterans in the 1920s (originally to start fishing businesses) and World War II survivors in the 1940s, before the industry took off, have remained in the same family for generations.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

In 1992 the government passed a law that awarded priority to existing concession-holders and automatically renewed the concessions every six years, making it all but impossible for new entrants to get in on the scene.

This history has instilled in many lido operators the mindset that the beach does, in fact, belong to their family and not the state – even if these days many are subcontracted out to third party operators for vast sums, far from being small family-run businesses.

Operators insist that beachgoers prefer private clubs to the alternative of unfolding a towel on the spiagge libere.

“People who come to the beach want to relax, they want the services and assistance that only establishments can offer,” Ruggero Barbadoro, president of the Rome Beach Club Federation and operator of the ‘Venenzia’ club in Ostia told the Corriere della Sera news daily in August.

As the number of concessions granted has only expanded in recent decades, however – “in the last twenty years continuing at such a pace that in many towns it is now impossible to find a spot where you can freely lie down and sunbathe,” says Legambiente – there’s a general feeling that the situation has got out of hand.

Many private beach clubs have remained under the control of the same family for generations.
Many private beach clubs have remained under the control of the same family for generations. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

In the early 2010’s lower wage earners hit by the recession complained they had been priced out of their area, as various Italian and foreign outlets reported a ‘class war’ on Italy’s beaches.

Under Italian law, the 5m stretch of beach directly in front of the sea is always free to the public, and clubs are legally required to display signs outside their premises indicating public access routes.

But many clubs simply ignore these rules, chasing away and threatening people who try to walk through their establishments without paying.

This led to a heated altercation in June when two Mare Libero activists challenged a club manager who had hidden his sign and refused to grant them entry. The encounter became so heated that police ultimately had to intervene.

“It’s an arrogance that stems from a certainty of impunity,” Danilo Ruggiero, one of the campaigners, told the Guardian.

The situation might, finally, be about to change: a new law approved by the Italian senate at the start of August is set to bring Italy in line with EU competition rules, requiring all beach concessions to be put up for public tender by 2024 at the latest.

READ ALSO: Italy’s private beaches to face public tender in tax fraud crackdown

More importantly, for those longing for free beaches, the law states that half of the beaches in each municipality must be free to access – having the potential to revolutionise seaside towns which are now under majority private control.

Whether the measure will actually be implemented by whichever government comes to power following Italy’s general election in September, however, remains to be seen.