As temperatures rise and summer beckons, it’s fast approaching that time of year when tourists from all around the world descend on Italy’s coastline.
But the huge popularity of Italy’s two largest islands Sicily and Sardinia, known for their pristine beaches and fluorescent blue waters, has come at a cost to the local environment, with trash and sand theft among the biggest problems.
However, this summer, local authorities are taking extra steps to preserve the natural environment by enforcing strict daily visitor limits, with some of the most highly rated beaches in the popular islands in the frontline.
While Baunei, a small village in a remote area of eastern Sardinia, has implemented daily visitor caps in previous years, restrictions on the number of sunbathers permitted to visit some of the most beautiful beaches along its 40-kilometer coastline overlooking the Gulf of Orosei are being tightened even further this summer.
Unsustainable visitor numbers
“Our land is mostly ragged tall cliffs where mouflons (wild sheep) and hawks live, and just a dozen beaches so everyone flocks there, crowding these,” Stefano Monni, the mayor of Baunei, tells CNN.
“We can no longer afford thousands of daily sunbathers all squeezed in one spot as in the past, it’s unsustainable.”
Four beaches are affected. Cala dei Gabbiani and Cala Biriala both now have a daily cap of 300 visitors in place, while Cala Goloritze has a limit of 250 visitors per day, and Cala Mariolu, the largest of the beaches, has a daily limit of 700 people.
Visitors to Cala Goloritze, which is only accessible by foot or boat, will be charged an entrance fee of six euros (US$6.5.)
Beachgoers must book their spot at all of these locations through an app called Cuore di Sardegna (or Heart of Sardinia) at least 72 hours before their visit. The entrance fee for Cala Goloritze can either be paid online, or with cash at the entrance to the inlet.
This charge will help fund surveillance, a parking area and maintaining the paths and toilets on the beach, according to local authorities.
“All these beaches, even those with free entrance, are tidy and neat,” adds Monni. “There’s surveillance, assistance to sunbathers and cleaning services. If people want, they’re welcome to leave a small contribution.”
At Cala Mariolu, one of Sardinia’s most famous beaches, a one euro per passenger fee is now applicable to any boats or dinghies that dock here.
“We must protect this paradise and its fragile ecosystem,” adds Monni.
The mayor says Baunei’s waters were rated as Italy’s most beautiful sea in 2022 by Legambiente, an Italian ecological lobby group. He says it’s also a site of European interest due to protected animals and birds species.
“Limits must be set otherwise everything collapses,” he adds.
Monni says that Cala Mariuolo has been besieged by up to 2,000 tourists a day in previous years, a situation he describes as “carnage.”
The coastal area of Baunei welcomes around 300,000 tourists each summer.
In a bid to further tighten restrictions, Monni has submitted a request to Sardinia’s regional authorities for permission to implement a mandatory six-square-meter distance between sunbathers throughout the entire coastline.
It won’t be an easy process. While Monni is confident about controlling access to the inlets by land, he’s fully aware that restricting access by sea will be more difficult. Private dinghies, yachts and canoes still show up in the area, often arriving from nearby towns.
“We can control sea arrivals only if the boats are run by the authorized tourist operators we have deals with and on a rotating base, no more than two hours on the beaches for each boat group,” explains Monni.
Beach towel ban
Baunei isn’t the only vacation spot in Sardinia trying to keep numbers down this summer.
Stintino, a fishing village on the northern coast, is adopting strict measures to protect its most stunning asset – the pinkish coral beach of La Pelosa, which offers views of the Isola Piana island, known for its stone lookout tower.
Named after the grassy, hairy (pelosi in Italian) plants that jut out of its soft sand dunes, La Pelosa is among the most beautiful – and crowded – beaches in Italy.
In high season, its sands are often a maze of towels and sunbathers, while a swim in its beautiful waters usually involves zig-zagging between countless inflatable water mats.
“We’ve capped tourists on La Pelosa to 1,500 per day for a ticket fee of 3.50 euros, bookings and payments can be made on an authorized website,” says Stintino’s mayor Rita Limbania Vallebella, recalling a sunny August day when town authorities apparently detected some 38,000 tourists swimming in Stintino’s waters.
“It was shocking, and disgusting. It destroyed the natural habitat leading to sand erosion. I can’t stand having tourists throw rubbish on the sand dunes, which they’d never do back at home.”
Keen to avoid a similar occurrence in the future, Vallebella is cracking down on ‘nature transgressors’ with beach patrols and a series of bans.
Dogs, smoking and sand stealing are all forbidden at this beach, along with using beach towels, with fines starting at 100 euros.
“On La Pelosa just mats are allowed. Unlike towels that get wet, sand doesn’t stick to mats, preferably if made of fiber and straw. We’ve lost so much sand because of beach towels,” explains Vallebella.
Meanwhile, restrictions are also in place at the nearby Le Saline beach. Campers are no longer permitted to “wildly” park on the fine pebble stone shore or near the lagoon, which is home to protected birds and plant species.
Over in Sicily, Lampedusa island, one of the Pelagie Islands, has also brought in tourist restrictions at a popular spot.
With its clear blue waters, Isola dei Conigli beach has been repeatedly named one of the world’s best beaches by travelers, so it’s no surprise that huge crowds flock here each year.
According to local councillor Totò Martello, over 1,500 people visited the beach, an egg-laying spot for loggerhead turtles, each day before a cap was introduced, alongside an entrance fee of two euros, paid on site.
“This number has now been halved, just 350 people in the morning, and another 350 in the afternoon,” says Martello. “Bookings are made online through a local authorized website.”
Those who sunbathe here must adhere to a specific “beach code,” which encourages visitors to remain at their sunbathing spot, unless they’re taking a dip in the water.
Sun beds and floating water mats are prohibited, and noise must be kept to a minimum.
“Summer can be tough. There are about 6,700 residents, but during the holidays over 200,000 tourists land here. It becomes unbearable for the environment and unlivable for everyone,” says Filippo Mannino, mayor of Lampedusa.
Martello says he plans to place a 40-day ban on the arrival of any cars and scooters of tourists’ and non-residents during the peak of summer.
To crackdown on the number of private yachts and boats anchoring in the bay, Mannino is pushing to have Isola dei Conigli listed as a protected marine park in the future.
Tourist’s cars are already banned on Linosa, Lampedusa’s smaller, jet-black volcanic isle, which allows only 200 visitors per day, according to Martello.
The move comes shortly after Mannino approved a measure to punish “vandals” who dump rubbish in Lampedusa and Linosa by seizing their cars.
Meanwhile, the island of Giglio, or Isola del Giglio island, based off the coast of Tuscany, has introduced a three euros landing fee, while cars are only permitted for stays of more than four days in August.
Home to 1,400 residents during winter, visitor arrivals reach a daily peak of 10,000 in the summertime, bringing the yearly total to 300,000.
Procida, another of Italy’s car-free islands, is also fighting against “hit-and-run” day-trippers.
Spanning barely four square-kilometers, the island is one of Europe’s most densely populated isles, with a population of around 10,000.