Tourist industry is outraged at Italy's belated attempt to clean up filthy seas

The Med off Portofino, playground of the rich and famous, has been reserved for sponges and corals. Local businesses are not at all happy, writes Anne Hanley
Click to follow
The Independent Online
RECENTLY Mohamed Fayed slipped quietly into Portofino harbour, retracing the route sailed by his son Dodi and Diana, Princess of Wales, last summer on their carefree and much-photographed last Mediterranean cruise. But if he plans to make an annual pilgrimage to the Italian port, visits may not be all plain sailing.

Five days after Mr Fayed weighed anchor, heading for Sardinia and the scene of that famous kiss, the sea off Portofino was transformed into a marine reserve. Some ecologically sensitive areas are now off-limits to boats and swimmers altogether, and permission is needed before they can venture into others.

To reach the picturesque harbour, where the world's rich and famous tie up to see and be seen, a narrow sea corridor has been mapped out to ensure that luxurious yachts such as the Harrods owner's Sokar are given a new sense of their own unimportance.

According to the environmental campaign group Legambiente, safeguards to protect the delicate marine environment there were long overdue. "The reserve was simply indispensable," said their spokesman, Roberto della Seta. "The water around Portofino is in a better state than in many other places in Italy; it isn't a complete disaster. But it could have ended up that way. Around Portofino at least, there's still something to save."

But the local tourist industry does not quite see it that way. Portofino has long thrived on its reputation as a millionaires' playground, and millionaires are notoriously loath to put up with annoying harbour-masters' launches demanding L400,000 (pounds 130) each time they cast anchor among the 46 species of sponge or take a dip near the rare rubrum coral found there. And locals fear that if the still-abundant luxury yacht species disappears from the coast, so too will the curious onlookers who pack the bars and restaurants along the seafront.

As the new restrictions went into effect, shutters went down on these watering holes, and the harbour filled with small craft, foghorns blaring, in a colourful water-borne protest. A compromise was struck between the environment minister and local authorities, postponing some of the tougher measures and allowing slightly more leeway for navigation in less sensitive areas. But local opponents have

yet to be convinced that a cleaner environment may boost, rather than scupper, their trade.

Opposition to the Portofino reserve was echoed on Ponza, where the environment ministry came under fire this week for extending rules banning camping, hunting, and construction of new or extension of existing buildings to over 80 per cent of an island which depends on tourism for its survival.

Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, a Green MP, criticised what he described as short-sightedness and "a culture of protectionism" in Italian tourism. "It is an attitude which is difficult to overcome," he said. "Italians have always gone in for what I call disposable tourism: the belief that if they ruin one thing, something else will come along. It's a question of changing that mentality."

Mr della Seta was also critical of Italian holidaymakers, who he believed are unwilling to rebel against low standards in beach resorts, reflected in the unregulated property development that is blighting some of the best-known beauty spots. "Italians are city-dwellers," he said. "There's no love of the sea in their chromosomes."

Though more beaches meet the official standards for bathing areas - 78.2 per cent of samples examined by Legambiente in 1998 were "clean", as opposed to 68.3 per cent in 1997 - the group believes these requisites are hopelessly inadequate, taking account only of streptococcal bacteria and not of solid waste or pollution from fertilisers, petrol or chemicals.

Moreover, any further improvements in the situation are unlikely. Some 23 per cent of Italy's liquid waste is not connected to a sewerage system, and 37 per cent is not filtered through water treatment plants before being channelled into rivers or the sea. Palermo, a city of 700,000 people, treats only 10 per cent of its waste water, while all of Milan's effluent sinks into the Po basin, making its way into the water table before ending up in the Adriatic.

Onshore the situation is not much brighter. Vietri sul Mare, at the western end of the spectacular Amalfi coast, is a colourful spot packed with shops selling the town's famous ceramics. But it has been overshadowed by a seven-storey concrete hotel complex, built without planning permission. The local council has ignored court orders to bulldoze it. Green MPs are pushing a special law through parliament, giving the environment ministry power to override local authorities and send its own demolition experts in. This will leave the ministry free to act swiftly against the estimated 142 buildings which spring up each day without permission.

"Where there's a will to do away with blights on the landscape, things get done," said Mr Pecoraro Scanio. "In Naples, 300 unregulated buildings have been torn down recently. In places like Vietri, however, where local powers have their own interests to protect, you're stuck with the horrors."

Small pockets of ecological good sense, coupled with economic acumen, provide hope. On the island of Ustica, a protected area has helped bring prosperity to what was once a struggling region. "Over the past three years, tourism here has risen by 15 per cent, and more people are coming from abroad," said the mayor, Attilio Licciardi. "But it has been a success only because the whole island was behind the reserve."