The beach holds an almost spiritual status for Italians. It’s where millions flee during the (increasingly hot) summer months, old friends meet, volleyballs fly over bronzing bodies, and all practice the time-honoured Italian tradition of dolce far niente – literally, sweet to do nothing.
It’s also where refilling your water bottle might cost you a euro, a cold shower 50 cents, and two beds with an umbrella for a day anywhere upwards of €30.
In Forte dei Marmi, the chosen seaside location of Rome and Tuscany’s elite, two beds and one umbrella for the ‘season’ (June-September) starts from €2,500 – the average rent of a one-bedroom flat in Rome over the same period.
This occurs in the only EU country where average wages have declined since 1990, 5.6 million live in absolute poverty and just over 25% of people live at risk of poverty and social exclusion. It is little surprise then that the share of Italians who say they cannot afford a week’s annual holiday away from home remains above 40% (from 50.8% in 2012 to 41.9% in 2020).
The Italian state officially owns 100% of the coastline, but regions have devolved powers to lease their share in concessione- in concession to privately-owned beach clubs or stabilimenti balneari. There are no official government statistics, but a good estimate suggests that around 50% of the beach is currently in private concession. The sea is still public of course, and beach clubs must display signs to guarantee public access, but often these “go missing” or become overgrown.
In large coastal regions such as Liguria, almost 70% of the coast is privatised; near urban areas, especially desirable towns, 90-98% of the beach is in private hands. There is no national law on the amount of beach that must be free.
The vast majority of private clubs pay a tiny concession to the state, often pegged to decades-old prices fixed during Italy’s economic boom in the late 1950s and early 60’s when the famous august holidays for workers were established. The number of beach clubs has only grown since, with an increase of 25% in the last ten years alone. With state concessione so much lower than the land value, private beach club owners are handed a huge public subsidy for their lucrative trade.
For example, on the stretch of coast near Rome between Sabaudia and Sperlonga, the average annual beach club concession ranges from €1,000 – 5,000 per year, despite the fact a single umbrella and two beds for a season can go for €1,700. Further up the coast in Ostia, the most offensive cases of privatisation can be found. Here, beach clubs purposefully wall off views of the sea from the town and cases have been brought to court concerning organised criminal involvement.
The remaining public beaches in Italy are normally in the dirtiest and hardest-to-reach areas of shoreline or squeezed between private beach clubs. They are often an uncomfortable experience; exactly how stabilimenti owners want them.
All this said, a large proportion of Italians are very happy with the current system: they enjoy paying for the comfort of a large sun lounger and umbrella, showers, and seasoned regulars often develop close ties with the owner. Many also distrust that the state could do a better job. Due to the country’s marked geographical inequality and how corruption maps onto this, distrust in the state to run anything competently (greatest from Rome southward but also nationwide) is a key obstacle to building public luxury. Nevertheless, the state is stepping in.
Europhiles vs Europhobes.
In 2006 the EU introduced the Bolkestein Directive. This milestone directive advanced the single market principle of competitive services and cross-border competition. Where once Italian beach owners were given preferential arrangements to keep their concession, and indeed many passed down the business through the generations, the new Directive makes this cosy arrangement illegal. Furthermore, accessing the EU Covid recovery funds is linked to a full commitment to the Directive, so it’s a pretty big deal.
Under the Directive, Italian regions should create time-limited open public bids for coastal land. After much foot-dragging, in 2022 reforms to the concessioni balneari were voted on in the Italian parliament. This prompted a face-off between Italian nationalists defending the status quo and Europhiles pressing for reform. In the end, it was only Meloni’s insurgent post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia which voted against the reforms, utilising its position as the only major party in opposition to Draghi’s technocratic government. Meloni described the reforms as a “shameful gift to foreign multinationals”. Incidentally, her party is expected to storm to power in this September’s general election.
In the run-up to the vote, centrists like the recent technocrat prime minister Mario Draghi, new centrist party leader Calenda and Partito Democratico’s Enrico Letta – Italy’s centre “left” party, championed the reforms as an opportunity to move Italy closer to the standards of the EU, seen as the holy grail of policymaking by Italian centrists. PD’s Letta was particularly keen to see the reform pass to enable the EU covid recovery funds – the so-called PNRR – to pass on time. In itself, this speaks of the remarkable coercive economic power the EU wields over Italy.
Meanwhile, right-wing nationalists (Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia) refuted the EU’s power over what they see as an Italian matter, a vote-winning stance among wealthy stabilimenti owners, some of whom even sit in parliament. Lega made clear that they were on the side of the Italian family business, echoing Meloni’s claims that this was little more than a win for international companies to profiteer from Italian land.
Neither side challenges the commodification of the coastline.
The Europhiles want a fairer rent paid to the state, but would not reduce the cost of beach-going or the extent of privatisation. Their plan may even be worse than the status quo, since opening up the market to multinationals would drain money from local areas (although many stabilimenti owners holiday elsewhere during the winter months and allegedly minimise their tax bills in what is a cash-heavy sector). Meanwhile the nationalist right are content to keep the current rip off going and cash in on their way.
Within this parliamentary tinkering, grassroots are fighting to keep alive the flame of free beaches.
Free the sea.
Founded in 2019, Mare Libero – ‘Free Sea’ – is an Italy-wide association which seeks to return the sea and beaches to the community.
Similar to the infamous UK Kinder Scout trespasses – a tradition continued by the recent mass trespass onto the 12,000-acre private estate of Tory minister for access to nature, Richard Benson – Mare Libero holds demonstrations across Italy promoting their “manifesto for the sea” – which defies the commodification-centric norm. The group monitors legal developments and coordinates ‘Taking of the Shore’ protests and demonstrations in town piazzas. So far these protests have had mixed success, attracting in some cases significant numbers but failing to counter the political headwind.
Decommodification or bust.
Mare Libero focuses on the core issue at stake: the beach’s commodification. Like the housing sector, increasing competition and inviting third-party investment won’t produce services that meet the needs of people, but rather those that service the highest paying consumer.
Sarah Gainsforth, an Italian urban specialist outlined the problem at stake with the reforms: “The problem with this reform is a shift ‘from the frying pan to the fire’, as we say in Italy: it’s a shift from a model of paleo-capitalism to capitalism, that is, from the hereditary system to one that follows market logic.”
She defined the stabilimenti system in plain terms: “It is a legalised system of privatisation of common goods for the disproportionate gain of a few.”
When asked about her opinions on the main obstacles to reforming the privatised system she said: “I would say there are two main obstacles both to the reform and to a shift of paradigm: cultural and economic. The first is what I was referring to before: the widespread conception that the ‘stabilimenti’ model is the norm. Most Italians I’m afraid can’t conceive of the beach and the sea otherwise… Secondly, the economic interests at stake are remarkably strong, lobbying in their favour is effective… and the ruling class in Italy, whatever their colour, tends to defend the interests of the few and the rich in the name of ‘stability’. But what we need is a radical change; stability in Italy too often simply means the preservation of an unjust status quo.”
But free beach fans also have hope.
Two regions offer a way forward: Puglia and Sardinia, both of which have made impressive moves to reclaim beaches for people and environment.
In Puglia, Carlo Salvemini, the elected centre-left mayor of Lecce in 2017, has helped steer the delivery of mainland Italy’s first coastal plan. This seeks to return large sections of the coastline to the environment, create public cycle lanes and demolish illegally built and abandoned buildings which mark the coastline. This encountered a large backlash but was pushed through based on the popular principles of environmental protection and public access.
Like Puglia, Sardinia is the only other Italian region which requires 60% of the beach to be free to the public mandated by local government law. Despite being a very desirable tourist destination, the island has promoted a solid place for the environment in its coastline policy. It has protected this through an independent government agency since 2007, charged with ‘the preservation, protection and integrated management of coastal ecosystems’.
Beachgoers in Sardinia will also find council provided toilets and concrete stands for people to bring their own umbrellas. This gives us a glimpse of what a radically different (dare I say socialist) beach experience could look like, perhaps complete with local government provided lettini – beach beds and sections of the beach left to people who want to play ball games, yoga or whatever they like – a freedom that is currently banned on privatised and often empty umbrella ridden beaches. This is the kind of freedom a de-commodified space can bring, where people design the usage of the space, not capital.
The right to leisure.
The UK is no stranger to scandalous privatisation, in fact, no other country privatised as much in so little time as we did. More recently, England’s beaches have suffered their own privatisation disaster, this time from the sewage dumped in the sea from rip-off water companies. The Times journalist Chris Haslam, author of the Great British Beach Guide, even floated private management of beaches as a solution to this on BBC 2 radio this week. But the case of Italy shows that this is no easy fix.
Italy’s private beaches also highlight something underrated in the utilities-focused UK privatisation debate: the intersection of leisure and land. Yes, utilities should be run publicly and in this respect, we have a lot to learn from Italy, especially its fantastic high-speed trains and municipal transport. But we also deserve the right to leisure, and the right to access it at a low cost in our own local environment. The beaches of Italy, just like the UK countryside (of which 92% is off limits to the public), deserve to be accessible to all, regardless of income. To do that, following the visions of movements such as Mare Libero and Kinder Scout, there needs to be a concerted focus on decommodification, placing human use value above capital accumulation.