Beach businesses throw a hissy fit as EU orders auctions for licence to operate on shoreline.

Think of Liguria, Rimini or Puglia, and the mind wanders to aquamarine seas, sun-kissed sands beside ancient towns with stone buildings, or cliffs topped with cypress trees.

On your lounger, shaded by a parasol, you sip an ice-cold drink, brought to you by a charming young man, as you ponder tonight's activities. Ah. Summer in Italy.

But a place at one of these beautiful locations comes at a price. Almost 30,000 of the 90,000 beaches on Italy's 7500km coastline are privately managed, ranging from simple single-shack operations to chic complexes with burly guards. They guarantee litter-free beaches, vigilant security and lifeguards, sometimes showers and personal lockers - and at the top of the range, cool drinks and food brought to you with a languid wave of your hand.


And what they are offering costs money. Just to set foot on the pristine sands at Ostia, near Rome, will cost you 8euro ($12.35) on weekdays, rising to 12euro at weekends. If you want a little shade, expect to pay about 30euro a day for an umbrella - or get a weekly rate for around 200euro.

Don't fancy that? Well, pack your own parasol and take a bus to the public beach. Just hope local council workers aren't on strike and the beach has been cleaned of cigarette butts, fast-foot wrappings, syringe needles and bottle caps. Be prepared to be pestered by hawkers with armfuls of Chinese-made tat. If tempers flare over loud music, beach space or theft, with a bit of luck the police will intervene. Or not.

In 2008, holidaymakers at a public beach near Naples shared space with two Gypsy girls who had drowned. The coastguards who plucked the bodies from the sea left them on the beach for the mortuary to collect.

Countries in northern Europe tend to frown on the private control of beaches, which they consider to be a common good. But in many parts of southern Europe, private beaches may raise a sigh, perhaps a shrug of the shoulder or possibly even a word of praise, for entrepreneurs provide a service that the public sector often neglects. The question has barely raised a controversy - until now.

On August 3, right in the middle of the holiday season, Italy's beach concession holders threw a hissy-fit. They refused to rent out beach umbrellas for a day, even to the well-heeled matrons who had patronised them for years.

The reason for their protest: a European Union directive that will allow public auctions for the concession of state-owned beaches by 2016. Until now, concessions for Italian beaches are invariably renewed automatically to the same administrators, often for very favourable rents - a practice that Brussels says breeds corruption. It wants the process to be transparent.

"We want to ensure there is fair competition and that everyone has the opportunity to offer his services," a spokesman for EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier told the Herald.

Representatives of the beach establishments say an open auction process would drive up concession costs, forcing them out of business or leaving them with fewer funds for facilities. Then, they say, there is the impact on jobs. According to the OECD, at least 73 million tourists travel to Italy annually and the industry employs around five per cent of the workforce. Private beaches employ 600,000 people, almost all of them seasonal labour.

"We're not talking about auctioning off the beaches, it's companies that are going to be auctioned off," said Fabrizio Fumagalli, manager of the Med resort in Ostia. "Everything you see here I built myself with many sacrifices and after many years. It's not like I'm going to pack up and set up shop somewhere."

Environmental groups like the Worldwide Fund for Nature say automatic renewals encourages entrepreneurs to build bigger and bigger facilities on the beach, damaging areas of beauty. Consumer groups fear a gradual decline in beaches where anyone can walk for free.

What may have brought things to a head was last year when then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to extend the six-year concession term to 90 years. Clearly seeing sabotage, the European Commission instigated legal proceedings against Rome, and Berlusconi - his fortunes then at low ebb - backed down.