Italy’s beach wars: How the fight for the beach baths became political – and physical

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Every summer, millions of Italians flock to the beaches that line the peninsula’s coastline and to the thousands of privately run bathing clubs that are an integral part of vacations here. But these “lidos,” or beach clubs, are keeping both Rome’s parliamentarians and environmental activists on their toes as a new controversy erupts over government reforms to make concessions on Italy’s shores.

After years of pressure from the EU, Italy’s multi-party coalition government has agreed to tender Italy’s private beaches until January 2024, with the reform being passed by the Senate in May this year.

That means there will be public competitions to rent out these lucrative beach spots, as well as other stretches of shoreline on the country’s lakes and riverbanks.

With details of the decree still to be voted on by the lower house and still pending following the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the collapse of the government, Italy’s bathing clubs fear such a shake-up would jeopardize the privileges they have enjoyed for decades.

In a new “beach war” that could be described as a conflict on multiple fronts, Rome now faces off against a disgruntled Lido lobby and outspoken environmental activists in a chaotic battle over the future of Italy’s coast.

“We want our work to be recognized”: Italy’s bathing clubs cling to their beaches

Bathing establishments or “stabilimenti balneari” have a long tradition in Italy. Largely family owned and passed down from generation to generation, the rows of chairs, umbrellas and brightly colored wooden huts have become a distinctive feature of the Italian coast. For some, they are a symbol of the country’s post-war economic boom and synonymous with “la dolce vita”.

But the sweet life also comes at a higher price – access to bathing club facilities costs an average of €20-30 per day and can go as high as €150 for more exclusive facilities.

Consequently, such lidos were routinely pilloried for becoming increasingly unaffordable for the average Italian family and forcing a stranglehold on the country’s coastline. They take up almost half of the beaches, eliminating any chance of competition. Finding a lounger and parasol to rent in the establishments themselves can also be a challenge, since entire rows are often reserved for regular guests.

Beach club licensing reforms could liberalize the market

But things could change soon. As part of Italy Post COVID plan, the government agreed to reforms that would force bathing establishments to reapply for their permits. This misses the target of the EU Bolkenstein Directive on market liberalization. Until now, Italy has allowed beach clubs’ licenses to be renewed automatically, a practice that has strained relations between them Rome and Brussels.

While such a system has been accused of encouraging 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 an integral part of community life seaside resorts.

Local beach club owners are concerned about the changes

In Varigotti – a picturesque fishing village on the Italian Riviera where the coast is full of bathing establishments – Euronews Travel spoke to a family business concerned about the reforms.

Opened in 1964, Bagni La Giara is a true local institution. Its customers have been vacationing here for decades, and it has become a magnet for Milan and TurinThe affluent middle class of fled the city’s sweltering summer heat. You pay the daily rate of up to €60 for a coveted front-row seat and private dressing room.

Bagni La Giara manager Filippo Magliola took over the business in 2008 after his wife inherited it from her grandfather. While agreeing that the beach concession system needs restructuring, he says the current reform debate is raising further concerns in an already fragile economy.

“We are all concerned about how this tender is going to play out,” Magliola admitted. “There is a risk that multinational companies or unethical business owners will want to appropriate beach areas, resulting in a depersonalized boardwalk.”

Magliola pointed to energy drink conglomerate Red Bull’s recent takeover of a port and island near the north-eastern Italian city of Trieste as an example of the future that could lie ahead for seaside resorts across the country.

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

Some say reforms will threaten tourism and livelihoods

Over in nearby Bagni Valentino, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, family patriarch Sebastiano Gambetta also commented on the reform plans, but looked a little less anxious about the future.

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

Such fears are shared by members of the country’s outspoken bathing associations, who fear the reform will have devastating consequences in Italy tourist industrythreaten the livelihoods of thousands and create unfair competition as larger companies seek to grab lucrative beachfront lands.

Conservative politicians rush to defend Italy’s seaside business class

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

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

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

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

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

But with the details of the law on economic competition still to be debated and the government’s own fate uncertain, the future of Italy’s beach clubs hangs at stake.

“The situation is confusing … no one knows how these deals will go forward,” Magliola added. “We’ve put time and money into our businesses, we want that to be respected.”

‘Our coast is not a commodity’: environmental activists clapping back

Another side of the beach dispute is represented by environmental organizations. They criticize both the government reforms imposed by the EU and the influence of the bathing establishments.

Efforts by such activists took a worrying turn this June after six activists from one organization, Mare Libero, meaning ‘open sea’, got into a heated argument with the owners of a beach club in Rome’s seaside suburb of Ostia. They were asked to pay to merely walk around establishment grounds, and in the ensuing altercation, one member was pushed to the ground and the police and an ambulance called.

Founded in 2019, Mare Libero campaigns for free access to beaches and demonstrates against what its members believe is a creeping commercialization of the country’s coasts.

“We see beaches as a place that shouldn’t be about profit,” Agostino Biondo, the group’s secretary, told Euronews Travel. “If we continue to treat our beaches like a commodity while offering disproportionately expensive and polluting services, there is a risk [for the shoreline].”

Biondo quoted Barcelona’s seafront promenade as a reference for the kind of public beach model he wanted for urban areas. In places like his native Rome, bathing establishments take up a significant portion of the coastline, making it difficult for individuals to find an open spot to soak up the sun. In some resort towns, like Gatteo a Mare in northeast Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, the coast is completely occupied by beach clubs, with no “free beaches” (spiagge libere) available.

While Biondo welcomed some aspects of the beach concession reform, such as shaking up a stagnant system, he nonetheless noted certain “critic points” of the decree, namely how it excludes the involvement and concerns of environmental organizations.

“More than anything, that [government] The reform was imposed by Europe,” said Biondo. “The Italian political system fails to recognize that a radical reform of Italy’s beach management could transform the coast and turn much of it into a true gem in a country that thrives on tourism.”

Biondo’s group has no qualms about taking their concerns to the streets – or rather, the beaches. On July 14, Mare Libero organized a series of demonstrations in 11 coastal towns across Italy to voice their criticism of the current situation.

“We want free access to the sea for everyone,” said Danilo Ruggiero, chairman of the Rome chapter, in Ostia. “You would have to walk 600-700m to find a public beach.” As he speaks, a group of tourists are sighted changing at a bench on the town’s pier, which Ruggiero enthusiastically cites as an example of the lack of vacant beach space.

In a resort town like Ostia, bathing establishments are nothing short of mini concrete fortresses crammed with restaurants and swimming pools, an imposing presence on the coast. Given the date of the protest, a playfully ironic allusion to the storming of the Bastille cannot be avoided.

“Concessions [shouldn’t] be passed from one generation to the next,” Ruggiero shouted through his megaphone, which was located a few meters from a beach club. “No to patrons for life!”

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