Free Italy's beaches, say campaigners

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The Independent Online

The British actor Rupert Everett has become the figurehead of a campaign to free Italy's beaches from the clutches of the owners of bathing establishments.

Any summer visitor to the Italian coast is familiar with the dispiriting sight of a long broad curve of blond beach fronting the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean or the Adriatic – covered by ranks of uniform beach umbrellas and sun loungers in tight, neat ranks.

The umbrellas and loungers are owned by companies which rent them to bathers. But often they also charge a fee to people who merely want to swim.

This was Everett's experience last week when he arrived in Venice for the international film festival, and went to take a dip in the sea off the island of Lido.

But he had no sooner spread his towel than he was informed he could not swim without paying for admission. After challenging the demand, he was told that that the same applied to all Lido's beaches. "It's unacceptable," he told Italian television. "Access to the sea should be guaranteed to everybody. I want to take the Venetian authorities to court."

The actor's indignation has struck a chord in Italy, where 2007 has been a summer of discontent for bathers.

In a new law appended in the spring to the budget bill, the government of Romano Prodi spelt out for the first time the rights of sea bathers. Huge stretches of Italy's 2,420km of swimmable coast are in the hands of concessionaires who provide food and drink, showers, paddling pools and other facilities, as well as umbrellas and loungers, to millions of holidaymakers. These establishments occupy some 915km of coastline, but this figure disguises the fact that they are dominant on the most popular and beautiful parts of the coast.

Where they dominate, only a sliver of free beach may remain uncluttered by their equipment, often in the most inconvenient or unattractive part of the beach.

In Liguria, for example, on the north-west coast, of 135 swimmable kilometres of beach, only 19km are free.

But the concessionaires are only the tenants of their stretch of sand, the state remains the owner, and the tenants' domain stops above the shoreline.

The 2007 budget bill spells out their duty to allow Everett and anyone else with a pair of trunks to swim free. "It is obligatory," it runs, "for the holders of concessions to permit unhampered and free access to, and transit to and from, the shoreline facing the concession, up to the end of the shoreline."

According to consumer organisation Adiconsum, the shoreline – battigia in Italian – comprises the area five metres from " where the waves arrive" – virtually a fixed point in the Mediterranean, which has almost no tides. "This strip of sand," Adiconsum notes, "is for the use of everybody. It is excluded from the concession. So the concessionary cannot claim any right over it". But as holidaymakers have discovered, the new law is widely disregarded.