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It’s the Italian dream: sprawling on one of the Mediterranean’s best beaches, drink in hand, moving only to eat some freshly caught fish or pick up another glass of local wine.
But your summer vita might get a bit less dolce from 2024, when new rules are set to come into force that some in the know are warning could change the fabric of Italy’s seaside.
From December 31, 2023, beachside concessions – whether that’s a beach club renting out sunbeds, a bar or a restaurant – will be put out to tender, in a move that “puts the dolce vita lifestyle at risk,” say those who work in the industry.
The change is in a law that is gradually moving through the Italian parliament, with another vote scheduled for Monday, before parliament is dissolved following the collapse of Mario Draghi’s government.
With 4,600 miles of coastline on the mainland alone, Italy is one of Europe’s biggest beach destinations.
There are around 30,000 beach-based businesses in the country, 98% of which are family-run, according to the Federazione Italiana Imprese Balneari (FIBA), or Italian Federation of Waterside Businesses, which represents them.
But the new law will mean that instead of the families automatically renewing their licenses, they will have to compete against other interested parties from across the EU – which could include big businesses.
Although the concessions won’t be up for auction, anyone wanting to bid must produce a plan for the site – and those who have owned bars and restaurants for generations fear that, inevitably, deep-pocketed investors will win – and prices for vacationers could rise as a result.
“It’s selling off Italy’s coastline [to the highest bidder],” Luciano Montechiaro, owner of Lido Jamaica at Trentova Bay, in the southern Campania region, told CNN.
“When shopping malls arrived in Italy, the small shops all closed. Us small businesses won’t be able to compete.”
Every day in summer, Montechiaro is on the beach by 8 a.m., sweeping the sand, prepping sunbeds and brewing cappuccinos for early arrivals at the shack built 40 years ago by his late grandfather, whose photo hangs above the restaurant area.
Visitors can either rent sunbeds and parasols, or hit the bar, where Montechiaro lays on a traditional lunch, including regional pasta dishes and salads. After he closes, he picks up litter around the beach.
Now 35, Montechiaro moved to Australia when he was younger, but returned every summer to work for the family business.
“This bay is my life – I was born here,” he said.
“There was hardly anything here when my nonno arrived. He asked for this bit of land, he was granted it, he built the hut, and he created this business. Now they might say, ‘Well done, now off you go.’
“If I’d known they would take it away from us, I wouldn’t have come back from Australia.”
‘I’d dismantle my restaurant’
Marino Veri, who owns Sasso della Cajana, a waterside restaurant in the Abruzzo region on the Adriatic coast, says the new law is “not right.”
His restaurant is located on a trabocco – a wooden fishing platform cantilevered over the sea, reached by a rickety walkway, typical of the area. The tradition dates back centuries, and most trabocchi are still owned by the same fishing families that have had them for almost as long.
Veri’s grandfather, a fisherman, built the trabocco, before his grandson saved it from destruction by converting it into a restaurant in 2010 and changing the family’s financial fortunes. Diminishing stocks mean that making a living from fishing on the Abruzzo coast has got much harder in recent decades.
“I can understand that people who don’t have the chance [to open their own] can be a bit jealous, but we have to save the traboccante [people who make and work in them],” he told CNN.
“There’s no firm that makes them – it’s an art. We know what wood to use – we cut it on a waning moon in January, so it’s strong for years. Anyway, I’d dismantle the trabocco if someone else [won the space], so they’d be buying a square of sea.”
‘Done in a hurry’
The law – which has been approved by the Italian Senate, and now moves to the Camera dei Deputati, who will vote on June 25 – seeks to level Italy up with EU competition regulations. The bloc had introduced a rule in 2006, but Italy – along with other beach-heavy countries – had repeatedly postponed implementing it.
Italian concessions had been automatically renewed since 1992, and in 2018, the government had ruled that renewals would be valid until 2033. However, holders – who may have taken out loans or mortgages on their businesses – will now be stripped of their licenses a decade early, with the government saying it must overhaul competition laws in order to benefit from the EU’s pandemic recovery plan. A spokesperson for the Consiglio di Stato, which proposed the law, did not respond to a request for comment.
Maurizio Rustignoli, FIBA president, told CNN that the way the law has been rushed through “isn’t right” and warned that prices could rise if big business moves in.
“A business owner who was told they had till 2033, did a 10-year projection, and made investments and life choices, now finds that the state has taken away 10 years, and so far there’s been no guarantee of compensation being paid,” he said.
“It’s been done in a hurry, but a measure of this magnitude needed more discussion.”
If companies coming in do need to pay compensation to the outgoing operators, “prices will rise without a doubt,” he said.
And he warned that the move could open the door to organized crime moving in – partly because of the funds needed to put together a winning proposal, and partly because few legitimate businesses will want to invest in something that could be stripped from them a few years down the line.
“Any entrepreneur needs certainty about the future, if they’re working legally. Either the illegal world will move in, or we’ll have an impoverished system,” he said.
“Tourist-focused businesses are very attractive to money launderers, so the risk is there. I fear an infiltration of illegal funds.”
Beaches ‘could go to multinationals’
Italy’s packed beachside concessions are “unique in the world,” dating as far back as the 19th century, according to Alex Giuzio, author of “La Linea Fragile,” about Italy’s coastline.
Giuzio, editor of Mondo Balneare, which reports on the sector, told CNN that the law as it stands is too vague to provide reassurance.
“It’s very generic – we know there will be a tender process, but not much more,” he said, adding that fears that the coast could end up being “sold off” are “valid.”
“Italy has more private concessions than anywhere else in Europe, and if the government doesn’t limit them to one per person, or favor small family operations – and they haven’t done that yet – you risk the beaches going to multinationals, and that’s kind of terrible,” he said.
Beaches as big business
Not everyone is devastated. Some point to the current low rents for concession-holders, and the suspiciously low tax declarations that they often submit.
And in the northern Veneto region, operators are already “mainly large-sized,” said Alessandro Berton, president of Unionmare, which represents them. Just two operators work the five miles of Bibione beach, for example; in other parts of the country, owners have a matter of meters to themselves.
And the Veneto region already has its own, similar, law that “produces effective results.” Beaches are big business in Veneto – they contribute 50% of the region’s GDP, equivalent to $10.5bn.
“The Veneto law helped us understand that difficulty can become an opportunity,” said Berton. “You can redevelop the area. We got pieces of land that 50 years ago were worth nothing… and we have constructed $10.5bn of GDP.”
He said that recognizing the investments made by previous owners would be crucial in deterring big business to come in. “The minimum you should give me is to repay what I spent,” he said.
The death of the dolce vita?
For Maurizio Rustignoli, however, everyone is at risk.
“You might be big but there’s always someone bigger, and in five, 10 years you’ll see the change,” he said.
“Our worry is that the small businesses will be squashed because they won’t have the financial power they have in Veneto… and while they’re excellent in Veneto, you can’t have a one size fits all policy,” he said.
In fact, it’s the entire dolce vita style of vacation that’s at risk, says Rustignoli.
“We don’t just sell sunbeds; we sell a lifestyle.
“Going to a hypermarket is different from going to a small store.
“Tourism is about emotions, and the dolce vita is made up of many things: food and wine, human relationships, wellness. If you make everywhere the same, you lose a lot.”