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TOURISM

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?

Three adjacent private beaches in Positano, Italy.
Three adjacent private beaches in Positano, Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP.

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.

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VENICE

EXPLAINED: Why Venice has delayed its ‘tourist tax’ – again

After the city of Venice announced yet another delay to its long-discussed plan to impose an entry fee, we look at why the project has run aground and what this means for visitors in 2023.

EXPLAINED: Why Venice has delayed its ‘tourist tax’ - again

For an island surrounded by shoals and shallow waters, it seems oddly fitting that Venice’s long-discussed ‘tourist tax’ system remains hopelessly stranded. 

The idea to impose an entry fee on all day-trippers, intended to regulate the number of visitors and supposedly solve the city’s overcrowding problems, was first mooted in 2019.

OPINION: Why more of Italy’s top destinations must limit tourist numbers

It has been repeatedly delayed – first after historic floods, and then amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

All the pieces seemed to have finally fallen into place earlier this year, and Venice was expected to get its much-touted ‘tourist tax’ system up and running by January 16th, 2023. 

However, to the surprise of no-one who’s even remotely familiar with the project’s troubled history, the city has now announced another delay – meaning the entry-fee saga will now continue well into the new year.

Why all the delays?

While Venice’s comune (town hall) vaguely attributed the latest deferral to the need to “change and improve” the project, a number of specific longstanding issues seem to have bogged down the city’s plans once more.

Confusion still lingers over who exactly will be exempted from paying the entry fee (contributo d’accesso), which will range from three to ten euros based on the day and time of the year. 

A gondola right in front of Venice's Doge Palace

Under Venice’s new tourism regulation system, day-trippers will have to pay an entry fee of three to ten euros to access the city centre. Photo by Laurent EMMANUEL / AFP

While tourists staying in the city overnight, residents, second-home owners and those studying or working in Venice have long been identified as exempt categories, local authorities have never quite clarified what their plans were in relation to people living in other Veneto provinces. 

READ ALSO: How will Venice’s tourist tax affect second-home owners? 

And, according to the latest Italian media reports, a squabble between Venice’s administration and regional authorities over the status of Veneto residents – the region is reportedly pushing for a full exemption, which Venice seems to oppose for now – may have been the main reason behind the latest stand-off. 

But a clearer definition of exemptions isn’t the only outstanding item in the city’s to-do list, not by a long shot. 

The administration’s failure to reach an agreement with local transport operators and port authorities over the enforcement of the new rules has largely contributed to the latest delay, and so have issues related to the planned online booking platform.

In particular, the comune pledged earlier this year that the website allowing day-trippers to book and pay for their visit to the city would be ready by the end of 2022 – but with less than a month to go until the new year there’s no sign of it.

READ ALSO: Moving to Italy: How much does it really cost to live in Venice?

Tourist sitting in a cafè by Rialto Bridge in Venice

Due to a number of structural issues, the introduction of Venice’s entry fee system is now expected to happen over the course of next year’s summer. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

It is perhaps telling in this sense that the city is still in the process of asking residents for comments and suggestions on the entry fee plan: the website created to collect feedback on the project went live on Tuesday, December 6th and will remain available until January 7th.

So when might visitors have to pay an entry fee?

Any changes made to the project now will have to be approved by the city’s council (Consiglio Comunale), after which it’ll take months – perhaps as many as six – to get the system ready to go. 

This means that, even if the council somehow managed to approve the new plan by the end of the year, the project’s trial stages could only start next summer at the earliest, with the local Feast of the Redeemer (Festa del Redentore) on July 15th potentially being the first real test for the system. 

But, given the project’s history, we doubt many people will bank on it.

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