Italy has almost 8,000km of coastline, but going to the beach is a bit like trying to sneak into a nightclub: the cool cats and slick service are enticing, but it’s also crowded, expensive and sometimes depressing. Even on a long, sandy stretch it can feel claustrophobic, with regimented deckchairs and parasols laid out in parallel lines in the raked sand.

More than 50% of the country’s coastline is now rented out by the state to bagni, private beach resorts offering drinks, food, beach huts and hundreds of deckchairs for rent. In Tuscany and Romagna the percentage of these privatised beaches rises far higher: in Forte dei Marmi, on the west-facing sand of the Tuscan coast, 94% of the town beachfront is rented to bagni. Nearby, in Pietrasanta, it’s 98.8% and in Camaiore 98.4%. The record is held by Gatteo a Mare, on the Adriatic coast, where 100% of the town’s beaches are now privatised. That means there’s nowhere you’re allowed to throw a towel on the sand, plant a parasol and spread out your own picnic.

The growth of these bagni has become exponential in recent years: nationally, the number of private beach concessions has risen 12.5% since 2018. In the south the increases are even greater: in that same 2018-2021 period, the number of private resorts rose by 41.5%, 22.8% and 15% in Sicily, Campania and Basilicata respectively.

At these resorts, claiming the choicest space on the sand is almost as competitive as getting the right row in the opera. One woman I talk to is proud that her luxury resort in Liguria “won’t rent out the front row of lettini (deckchairs) right next to the sea even if they’re empty”. They’re reserved for the longest-standing families. As in nightclubs, a sense of exclusivity creates high demand and high prices. To keep cash flowing, though, some bagni employ heavies: last month it was reported that beach-goers in Bacoli, near Naples, were being frisked to check that no water bottles or homemade sandwiches were being brought in.

There are few cheaper options. In Tuscany, a spiaggia libera ­— a free beach — is hard to find. They’re usually in the least desirable section of the coast: far from amenities and the shade of the pineta, often close to drains and estuaries, and likely to be more pebbly or prone to driftwood pile-ups.

The central criticism of privatised beaches is that resort managers are paying mid-20th-century rents while charging 21st-century prices. In 2017, it was revealed that the Arenile di Bagnoli in Campania, with two spaces totalling 14,000m² including a roof terrace and pool, was paying only €15,830 per annum. Covered beach-side spas like the Club Partenopeo, with lawns, jacuzzis and swanky bar, were paying only €2,621 per annum. The deckchair-renting racket is a glaring example of the demanio, state property, being milked for private gain. Overall, it’s estimated that the state only receives €100 million in levies from a business which has a turnover of €15 billion.

Further north, the profits are even higher. Flavio Briatore, the ex-Benetton and F1 Renault team manager, rents 5,000 m² in Marina di Pietrasanta for €17,619. Twiga, his luxury resort, can take that in one night. Briatore himself has been open about the absurdity, admitting the rental costs of bagni should be “tripled at the very least”. Franco, a do-it-all manager from another resort, admits that he’s running “a golden prison”. When I quote Briatore to Franco, he smiles and says: “Doubling it would be fine”. There can be few businesses in 2022 doing so well that doubled rents would be seen as no biggie.

The issue of Italy’s private beaches is now coming to a head because Mario Draghi, the Italian Prime Minister, introduced legislation at the end of May to terminate all beach concessions by the end of 2023. This legislation is part of a wider overhaul of Italy’s competition laws that the country is obliged to carry out in order to be eligible for the next tranche of the EU-funded €210 billion Covid recovery plan.

The issue has been unresolved since 2006 when the Bolkestein Directive obliged EU member countries to offer coastal concessions for a “limited duration, and through an open public selection procedure, based on non-discriminatory, transparent and objective criteria”. Italy has never implemented the legislation, and city councils and national governments have issued repeated proroghe — extensions — to delay the Bolkestein Directive: resorts in Rimini enjoyed tenancy extensions taking them safely from 2009 to 2034. “Twenty-five years of extensions!” laments Roberto Biagini, the indignant President of the National Coordination for Free Seas.

The EU is right to suspect a lack of open competition in the assignation of these beach concessions. Many have been passed down the generations, and longevity of tenure is actually what many resort managers are most proud of. “My grandfather opened this place in 1930,” says Giuliano, who runs Paradiso bagno in Camaiore, Tuscany. “There was a woman in her eighties, she died recently, she had come here every summer since 1932.” Many resort managers say something similar: they feel they have built up businesses over many decades and that Europe is meddling in an Italian tradition.

At Paradiso, customers are almost like extended family and Giuliano’s reminisces are frequently interrupted by old-timers. It’s early morning in mid-June and families are coming back to his place for the first time in a year. He welcomes each of them by name like an accomplished hotelier, always in the sweet spot between formal and laid-back. He knows what they want through the morning: drinks, ice creams, fresh towels.

In an attempt to make things fairer, beach resorts pay VAT at 22% rather than, as with all other tourist operators, the discounted rate of less than half that. After much legal wrangling, they also pay the IMU property tax as if they owned the beach, not the public.

But they still have, critics say, an unfair advantage over rivals. Businesses away from the sand, on the other side of the main road, are selling exactly the same goods but paying rates ten times higher. The anomaly has come about because, decades ago, a beach shack was seen as the poor person’s version of the posh patisserie in town and rates were, duly, set very low. Now it’s the reverse: everyone wants a coffee by the sea and the shacks have morphed into permanent chalets offering fine dining.

Politicians have tried to address the issue of long-term sand-squatters before, but never with any zeal. In August 2020, the minimum annual rent for beach resorts rose from €364 to €2,500, but there were many exemptions: the Covid crisis wasn’t the time to radically disrupt the exoskeleton of Italy’s tourism industry. Last autumn, Roberto Biagini came close to accusing politicians of taking bribes: “It’s a do ut des [“I give, you give”] arrangement for campaign contributions”, he said. “Politics has completely bent the knee in the face of the seaside goods.”

There’s a thriving black market in subletting too: many of the resorts are rented officially for one figure but often sublet for a far higher one. Biagini tells me that it’s not uncommon to have a concession which pays €8,000 to the state being sublet for ten times that figure. Most bagni will give you a till receipt as proof that they’re paying taxes, but many are clearly operating cash-in-hand.

More than just bending the knee, many politicians have got in on the act: Massimo Casanova is an MEP for the League who runs Papeete in Milano Marittima, where a few years ago the League’s leader famously danced to techno versions of the Italian national anthem surrounded by women in bikinis. Casanova pays, it’s believed, €10,000 per annum and enjoys a turnover of €700,000.

Some politicians, however, have taken on the resorts head-on. “Whoever runs a beach establishment is not the owner of anything,” said Josi Gerardo Della Ragione, the long-haired young mayor of Bacoli last month. “They have a concession on state property, managing a public asset for a certain time period, because the beach belongs to everyone. The sea belongs to everyone.”

An unlikely political hot potato, the beach concession story roots through intriguing political and emotional terrain. In some ways, the debate lies on the fault line between Italian nationalists and Europhile internationalists. The defenders of the status quo say that the new legislation is an example of an unelected technocrat sacrificing one of Italy’s few buoyant industries, hospitality, to wealthy foreign investors at the behest of the EU. Matteo Salvini’s Five Star Movement/League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy are exploiting the debate to position themselves as lifeguards to the Italian underdogs. The Union Jack has even been flown pointedly in various resorts this summer as a symbol of Euroscepticism.

Protectionism is a habitual position of the Italian Right, and is rarely seen, as elsewhere, as solely negative. The idea that an Italian tradition is under threat from rapacious, foreign investors speaks to the gut of many voters, especially since Italy is very used to closed shops. There are dozens of closed professional orders, like the dreaded albo of journalists: outsiders simply aren’t allowed to disrupt a good thing.

So even if international law and economic rationality are clearly on Draghi’s side, one gets the feeling that the rump of Italian seaside-goers are contented with things as they are. The resorts make beach-going easy. Through the day they sell you everything you could want: coffee and a croissant, calamari and a glass of white. You can join a gentle water gym, play a few rounds of ping-pong, then swig a cold beer and go barefoot dancing in the evenings. “Most families,” says Biagini, “are far more concerned about seeing the same lifeguard or barman as last year than they are about the lack of free beaches.”

Since people usually spend weeks, or an entire month or two, in the same bagno — often returning there year after year — they feel like rustic, simple villages of gloss-painted pallet furniture and fraying, salted awnings. For millions of Italians — who enjoyed three months off school every summer as children — these resorts are where many of their fondest childhood memories are stored. It’s where they spent languid months with grandparents while their parents were working. Our children, too, have spent many happy weeks in these dunes, so it’s easy to understand the anxiety of those who don’t want anything to change.

But in the 25 years we’ve been going either east from Parma to the Adriatic coast, or west over the Apennines to Liguria and Tuscany, these resorts have gone from simple and spartan to offering evermore ambitious experiences: volleyball pits, Padel courts, and club nights. Temporary structures have become permanent. That’s why the most feared aspect of Draghi’s legislation is the “mapping”, in which the entire coastal area is due to be subjected to aerial and ground-level inspections. The discrepancy between what the concessions are supposed to be on paper and the reality of what, over decades, they have become is likely to be fairly wide.

Inevitably the protectionism which never gets mentioned is that of the actual coastline. The demand for immaculate sand means that the majority of driftwood, boulders, seaweed, and shingle spits have been removed, causing erosion issues which require the remedy of bulldozers lugging artificial protections into place. The sandy stretches have been so humanised that you see a hundred fag-butts and face masks to every crab or jellyfish.

Yet almost everyone agrees that it’s going to be arduous to impose any change. With a general election looming next year, Edoardo Zanchini, Vice President of the Italian environmental organisation Legambiente, says that “no politician will really want to take on the powerful lobby of the resort-managers”. If the country has delayed the imposition of EU legislation for 16 years, it seems unlikely, even with Draghi in the driving seat, that all coastal concessions will suddenly be put up for tender. “In Italy”, says Franco, “we do things in our own time.”

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