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G - 61 : Cultural War on Italy's Beaches

One of the most memorable impression from our trip from Malta to Athens in 2020 were the miles and miles of sand and pebble beaches in Calabria. They were mostly empty. Ever so often, there was a small concession with a few neatly aligned umbrellas. They were mostly clustered around the coastal towns. These long stretches of empty shore line had a beauty and tranquility that is lost in most of the Europe today. The sound of your own steps, the waves and the light breeze were the only noise.

The long and empty Beaches of Calabria just south of Crotone

It will be different this summer when we sail westward following the Ligurian coast. Due to its topography, the coast line is mostly rocky. Only a third are beaches. Then there are three big towns nearby: Genoa, Torino and Milano. Many of their citizens spend the summer holidays on these beaches. Not surprisingly, they are crowed. The crowding is made worse by Italy’s system of concession (“stabilimento”) which lets private businesses manage large portions of the beaches.

The Beach in Noli, a good hour west of Genoa, is hemmed in by Mountains

Italy has 5’000 miles of shore line. The beaches are public. Private individuals are not allowed to own them. But under the system of concessions half of Italy’s beaches are privately managed. Umbrellas and sun beds are neatly spaced for miles. For two chairs and an umbrella, visitors are expected for fork out 30 – 100 Euros per day. For a family of four, this adds up. Often, access to a beach costs as much as renting a place to stay. For two weeks, it may exceed EUR 1’000.- Now some of the beaches replace the deck chairs with Gazebos, which are around 400 Euros a day.

Almost 90% of Noli's Beach is covered by Concessions and run by Private Businesses

The issue of concessions does not matter in places like Calabria where there are miles of empty beaches and people can bring their own chairs and umbrellas. In Liguria and Rimini where private businesses control up to 90%, the issue is different. The free beaches are in unattractive places and so crowded that you can barely move. Even for Italians who are used to inefficient government this is too much. Last summer, protesters “invaded” the private beaches under the Jolly Rogers banner and demanded that access to all beaches is free. There is a good documentary on Arte.

The matter has also caught the attention of the EU. Italy grants 13’000 concessions for as little as 2’800 Euros per year. Almost all of them on a permanent basis. The concessions generate a meager EUR 115 million. The EU High Court ruled in April that “beach concessions can be awarded only after a competitive bidding process and cannot be automatically renewed”. Italy was asked to revise its law on concession. The amendments are currently debated in the Italian parliament.

The Pasta Vecchia Resort near Rome on the Lazio Coast

The issue is far from being resolved. The lobby of the concession holders is quite strong and has won the support of many members of parliament. In many cases, the concessions are as old as Italy’s constitution and concessions are in the family for three generations. Affluent Italians are not in favor of revoking concessions either. They visit private beaches for years and are not too keen battling for space on a “free” beach. It is to be seen whether there will be a parliamentary majority for the amended law.

Not as crowded as on a "free" Beach but still crowded

Be it as it may, the system of concession will end by 31 December 2023. This is the deadline the EU court gave the Italian government. Italy is not the only EU country to run a concession system for its beaches. France does the same. But less than 20% of its beaches are run by private businesses. We will see the difference once we sail into the Cote d’Azur this summer. Nice’s Plage des Anglais has a private section, but it is small compared to the freely accessible part. France definitely has found a more balanced solution. But it also had the French Revolution. :-)

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