There is an Italian expression, derived from a 1963 song by Piero Focaccia, that neatly encapsulates the deeply ingrained rituals of summertime beachgoers: stessa spiaggia, stesso mare (same beach, same sea).
Year in, year out, this often extends to paying a tidy sum to rent the same cabin, same lounger and same umbrella covering the same patch of sand, at the same lido or beach resort, preferably in a prestigious row close to the shoreline, for an entire season.
But such is the domination of private beach clubs along Italy’s long stretches of coastline that a growing number of people are pushing to break old habits and wage a campaign to reclaim free beaches.
Even though Italy’s shoreline is public property, more than half is managed through private beach concessions. A significant number are renewed automatically to the same owners rather than using a tender process, creating an impenetrable dynastic system. According to figures from the environment association Legambiente, the number of private beach establishments has doubled over the past two decades to 12,166. On top of that, almost 2,000 contracts dedicated to beach-side camping or sporting activities have been granted to businesses. “Overall it is estimated that less than half of the country’s beaches are freely accessible and available for swimming,” the association said.
The cost of going to a beach club has also increased. The daily price for two loungers and an umbrella averages €20-30, and reaches €75 in the more upmarket resorts.
Nowhere is the issue more emblematic than in Ostia, the closest beach to Rome, where it is difficult to even glimpse the Mediterranean because of the miles of fencing and concrete structures barricading it off to all but those who pay. By law, resorts are supposed to hang a sign at their entrance confirming free access to the shore, from which people can walk to the scarce areas of free beach.
Several protests have been held by local activists with Mare Libero, a national network fighting for free beaches. But their campaign took a nasty turn last weekend when two campaigners were harshly rebuked by a resort owner after they attempted to walk through to the shore.
“We were checking every establishment to see if the free transit sign was placed in a visible position, as often it’s not,” said Danilo Ruggiero, one of the two activists. “They tried to stop us from entering, saying: ‘This is a private beach.’ When we challenged them and asked where their sign was, they claimed they were dusting it off.”
The argument with the resort owner became so heated the police had to intervene.
“It was a surprise to get such a strong reaction,” said Ruggiero. “But it’s an arrogance that stems from a certainty of impunity. They know there are no repercussions for them not putting the sign up, and having non-paying people walking on the sand irritates them.”
Claudio, the owner of the family-run establishment in question, said paying customers have been coming to the resort for years, and that it is his duty to protect them from potentially unsavoury intruders. He is also responsible for keeping the beach clean, and providing showers, toilets, dining facilities and a lifeguard service. “When you enter, you enter my house,” he said. “Anyone who wants to transit can do so, but they cannot stay.”
Recent protests have also been held on a section of free beach in Pulcinella, Naples, where Mare Libero activists took to the sea in kayaks, holding a banner that reworded the Focaccia song: “This year, for a change … same beach, without paying.”
Paolo Casale, one of the activists, said: “There has been a diverse and improper use of the beach and the sea. Once upon a time, the beach was used for sun therapy. Now, through concessions, owners are more occupied with erecting concrete structures hosting a variety of events – communions, weddings, discos – because they are more profitable activities.”
Casale said the government must introduce a law obliging local administrations to keep at least half of their beaches free. “There are few free beaches in or near Naples, and in the wider Campania region just 20% are free. On top of that, the sea has become a parking lot for boats.”
As for other regions, 70% of the Ligurian coastline – in the north-west, on the border with France – has been handed over to private establishments. In Rimini, a city in Emilia-Romagna, and in Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany there are virtually no free beaches. “And the free areas tend to be on less beautiful parts of the beach,” said Ruggiero.
A national protest by Mare Libero activists will be held on 14 July. But though the campaign is gathering momentum across the country, Ruggiero is sceptical of any significant change happening soon because paying to go to the beach is so ingrained in Italian culture.
“There is no other way to live the beach experience,” he said. “It’s become a status symbol too. The conversations start in the spring, with people asking their friends: ‘Where have you rented your beach cabin this summer? We’re renting the same one.’”