Billionaire's battleground

Silvio Berlusconi has finally met his match - the Tiscali entrepreneur turned politician who has banned coastal development on the island of Sardinia. Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online

Two balding, Italian billionaires sit at opposite ends of the island of Sardinia, nursing their very different visions of Italy's future.

Two balding, Italian billionaires sit at opposite ends of the island of Sardinia, nursing their very different visions of Italy's future.

One is Silvio Berlusconi, media magnate, billionaire and Prime Minister for the past three and a half years. Mr Berlusconi has made extravagant additions to his Sardinian holiday property, Villa Certosa, on Sardinia's north-east coast: two swimming pools, bringing the villa's total to eight, a James Bond-style underwater entrance and a 400-seater auditorium. When government planning inspectors called, he told them to get lost: what went on within these walls was "a state secret", he said. Mr Berlusconi stands for the individual's pursuit of his own happiness, regardless of the consequences for society.

At the other end of Sardinia, in Cagliari, the capital, sits another billionaire, Renato Soru: the man they call "Italy's Bill Gates", whose internet service provider, Tiscali, has become the second biggest in Europe, with nearly eight million users. In 2000, Mr Soru was listed 99th on Forbes's billionaire list, with an estimated wealth of $4.3bn (£2.2bn). The dotcom crash hit Tiscali too, and a year later Forbes valued him at only $1.2bn, but the firm recovered and is again performing strongly.

Like Mr Berlusconi, Mr Soru has now cashed in his entrepreneurial chips for a career in politics. Four months ago he was elected President of the Sardinia region. And his first act as President was to freeze all building within two kilometres of the coast. "This is a measure," he says "that will protect Sardinia and Sardinians for the next 500 years." It is also a measure that Mr Berlusconi would not have enacted in a millennium. Mr Berlusconi made his first fortune in construction, and his relatives have been trying for years to get permission to develop Sardinia's Costa Turchese for tourism.

President Soru's decree was dramatic, and the howls of pain from developers and their political allies were instantaneous. Sardinia is one of the jewels of the Mediterranean, with a tiny population for its size (1.5 million) and long stretches of glorious, sandy beaches fronting an azure sea worthy of Barbados or the Indian Ocean. Its holiday villages have long been a popular and cheapish package-tour option; the Costa Smeralda, where Mr Berlusconi has his villa, is home to some of Europe's most expensive beach resorts.

Many foreign developers have waded into Sardinia waving fat chequebooks. Like the other invaders who have cowed and exploited this island since the Carthaginians and ancient Romans two millenniums ago, they have had it all their own way. And last year, for accidental reasons, Sardinia became more lusciously attractive than ever. A new law intended to control development along the coasts was challenged by environmental groups who said it was not tough enough. The court accepted the argument and struck it down, leaving huge areas of the coast unprotected by any law. Mr Soru's predecessor could have filled the legal vacuum but did not bother to do so. Developers rushed to stake their claims.

Then Mr Soru entered politics and enacted his decree, and the building sites fell silent. And last week the judgement of this political parvenu was confirmed twice over. A regional court to which developers and politicians hostile to the decree had appealed, gave judgment in the President's favour. And the regional assembly voted to turn the decree, which until that point had had only temporary force, into the law of the land.

His opponents continue to grind their teeth, but Sardinia's beaches are now more comprehensively protected than those in any other part of Italy.

I met Renato Soru at his home in Cagliari, the island's small, charming capital in the far south of the island. He is among several businessmen who have entered politics in Italy in the years since the great bribery scandal of the early 1990s known as Tangentopoli. Several of the big political parties imploded as a result of that affair, but politicians as a class also suffered grievous damage: one and all they were perceived as twisters and opportunists, up to their necks in roguery and game for anything.

Suddenly, almost anyone who had made his name and fortune in a field removed from politics looked preferable to the pros. Enter, with his own political party and a resoundingly new political style, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's richest man. And 10 years later, as part of a centre-left coalition, Renato Soru did the same thing.

It would be hard to think of two more different Italians. Mr Berlusconi, whose duration as Prime Minister is now a postwar record, is "the great communicator", the one-time crooner who flatters himself that he has a direct line to his fellow-citizens' innermost desires. His Neronian tastes in property were well known even before he began tinkering with his Sardinian villa.

Mr Soru could not be more different. He looks like the tall, bespectacled member of Gilbert and George. One's first impression is that it would be difficult to imagine anybody less charismatic. He seems painfully shy: his voice is faint, he hauls it up with an effort of will. Ask him something tricky and he hunches on the sofa, squeezing his hands behind his knees, gazing through thick lenses at the rug for long, silent moments of self-examination. Yet the impression of pallor and self-effacement is a mistaken. His tastes are pronounced: modern, severe, Sardinian. He lives in a cubic, modernist house faced with grey stone, enjoying a huge view of sea and coastline and adorned with moodily modern Sardinian works of art. And in his quiet, pensive way he is a man of passions.

He was born in 1957 in a village 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Cagliari. His mother ran a chemist's shop. His father was first an undertaker then a bookseller and newsagent, but in his forties he experienced a mystical crisis and decided that he was earning too much and became the janitor of a local school instead.

Renato was clever and ambitious and went to Bocconi in Milan, the best university in Italy for economics. While he was still there, his father, who must have recovered from his mystical period because he was halfway through building a supermarket, died. This, it is said, was the moment young Soru began to take life seriously. He went back to his village and brought his father's project to a successful conclusion.

After graduating, he became a derivatives trader on the mainland, and prospered, then in 1992 returned home again to expand the family supermarket business.

In Cagliari in the mid-90s he spotted the potential of the internet, beating practically everyone else in Italy to the punch. In 1997, he launched Tiscali, naming the firm after an ancient Sardinian village where the island's population had taken shelter from invaders. He took advantage of telecoms deregulation to go national throughout Italy, becoming in the process perhaps the first Sardinian to invade the mainland.

Then in 1999, inspired by the revolutionary British internet service provider Freeserve, whose business model he copied, he became the first provider on the Continent to offer free internet access. Success was rapid and enormous.

Now he has made yet another dramatic change in direction. Yet he insists he is in politics for only a limited period. "I did other things before I went into politics," he says. "There are other things I want to do afterwards. Sardinia is going through a particularly difficult period - at a crossroads of important decisions.

"We have many opportunities before us, yet also many perils. In the next 10 years, we will be undergoing critical changes; we can either march ahead or we can slide back. I felt I could be useful.

"I've promised that after five years I'll quit. I am just a citizen who for a certain period has decided to devote himself to public service, to working for community projects rather than merely personal ones."

And the save-the-coast law is for President Soru an urgent priority. "You can keep building next year, for a few years to come, until there are no vacant sites left," he says. "But sooner or later this process has to come to an end, right? And this problem of the lack of jobs in the construction industry: sooner or later it's bound to happen. All the better then to deal with it now. Because if you destroy everything, when you've finished with building there will be neither the construction business nor any tourism either, because the environment will be so horrible that people will no longer want to come and visit it."

The commercialised, mass model of tourism is anathema to Mr Soru. "Mass tourism works like this," he says. "You take tourists from an airport in northern Europe or northern Italy, you discharge them in Sardinia, put them in a bus, take them to a tourist village, shut them up in it, feed and water them for a week then put them back in the same bus and take them to the same airport and send them home. What have these people seen? Nothing. They've seen a tourism factory.

"This is the tourism that Sardinia offers. It's a sort of colonial exploitation of Sardinia's tourism resources, that's the way I see it. It's not much different from the years in the 19th and early 20th centuries when foreign companies exploited the island's mineral resources. Now instead of extracting minerals they are extracting tourism. Instead of a resource under the ground it's above ground, in the light of the sun, but it's the same model. With foreign capital, I come here, looking for just that piece of land which serves my purpose, and I extract sand and sunshine. And the locals line up to be hired as underpaid waiters for three or four months in the year.

"This model of development cannot last. And today we know that, while the numbers of tourists is constantly increasing, many of them don't want to be tourists but to be viaggiatori, to be real travellers, instead.

"Tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon; before that you had travellers, elite travellers, then you had mass tourism and now globalised mass tourism. But already there are a lot of people who don't want globalised tourism. It's pointless to go to the Caribbean and then to the Maldives and feel you are in the same place. And then come to Sardinia and feel you are in yet another place that is just the same. This phenomenon is killing the world.

"In the future, and indeed for many travellers even now, people will want a local experience. There's the English phrase 'going local' to go to a place to enjoy a local experience. If they come to Sardinia they don't want to experience something they could experience anywhere, but they come for a particular experience, evocative of Sardinia, its distinctive countryside, distinctive architecture, colours, music, a different language, different cuisine; they want a local experience."

Mr Soru has hired Italy's most respected expert in tourism to advise a committee he has set up on how to get such local initiatives up and running. "We are drawing up a plan for the development of sustainable tourism," he says. "We want to see lots of small initiatives, to shift the emphasis from tourists to travellers." And he is also emulating Britain's National Trust, planning to buy back pieces of the coastline to preserve them for posterity.

"The value of the environment can only rise in the next 10 or 20 years. So what is the big hurry to sell it off when its value can only increase? We want to be in a place with a beautiful environment in 30, 40, 500 years: in the middle of Europe, in a place that is safe, easy to reach, and with a recognisable and fascinating culture and history."