Under the sun, and threat of virus, Italy readies its beaches

Jesolo (Italy) (AFP) –


Beach season is around the corner and all along Italy's vast coastlines, preparations have begun to attract sun-worshippers and their wallets while safeguarding against the lingering coronavirus.

Most beaches throughout the country remain off-limits. Along some stretches of seafront, however, the sight of colourful, carefully spaced parasols and lounge chairs in the sand hint at economic activity waiting anxiously to restart.

On the Adriatic coast, the hotels, restaurants and seaside resorts flanking the beaches are a vital part of the regional economy, as flocks of tourists -- both Italian and international -- vie for a spot in the sun.

"To speak of beaches is a matter of life or death for the economy," Luca Zaia, president of the northern region of Veneto, said on Wednesday during a press conference.

Veneto, which includes Venice, is the Italian region that attracts the most tourists, who add 18 billion euros ($19.5 billion) to the economy each year. About half of that comes from beach activity.

That means that beach hotels are now in high gear, disinfecting chaise lounges, spacing out tables and using technology to help.

- Remote-controlled parasols -

Italy's government -- well aware of the importance of the tourism sector, which represents 15 percent of the jobs in the country -- this week issued a series of rules for beach businesses.

Umbrellas must be placed 4.5 metres (15 feet) apart, common areas such as showers and bars must be sanitised, and disinfecting gel must be provided in heavily trafficked areas.

Most beaches throughout the country remain closed, with regional and local officials having the authority to decide when to open them.

To the east of Venice in Jesolo, dozens of hotels line the beach, Miami Beach style. Here, technology is helping to keep the virus at a distance. Parasols open and close via remote control, bathrooms self-disinfect, and electronic bracelets are used to open lockers and restrooms.

Alessandro Berton, president of the professional union Unionmare Veneto, told AFP that businesses had begun preparations over the past few weeks.

Among other efforts, the industry has improved its online booking system to prevent people from congregating near entrances to the beach establishments, he said.

But booking is useless unless hotel operators can anticipate when the tourists will arrive, said Christofer De Zotti, director of the Mondial Hotel.

"The real turning point will be the opening of the borders," said De Zotti, pointing out that foreigners make up 60 percent of his clientele.

"It's important to know when they will be allowed to take their vacation in Italy," he said.

- 'Awful situation' -

In Cesenatico, two hours to the south in the neighbouring region of Emilia-Romagna, all the seaside resorts stretching along the coast are closed and only three hotels out of 310 are open.

But despite the closed shutters, all of them are busy trying to restart as soon as possible.

"Normally I would have opened at the beginning of March," said Simone Battistoni, whose family has been running the Bagno Milano beach concession since 1927.

Battistoni and his colleague Guido Gargiulo, a 37-year-old former footballer, are currently testing newly installed parasols and deckchairs.

"Guido, can you believe it moves me to see these sunshades," Simone said with a smile.

Both men come to the same conclusion: the new rules will force them to reduce the number of parasols by at least a third, forcing them to take a cut in revenue of the same size.

Battistoni said he envisions hiring 70 people this season, far short of the 120 usually employed.

"It's an awful situation," laments Fiorenzo Presepi, owner of the nearby La Dolce Vita hotel.

"Normally I would be full from Sunday. The Giro d'Italia (bike race) was making a stop here and the Germans had been booking for a year and staying for at least a week," Presepi said.

Similar complaints are heard in Rimini, immortalised by Federico Fellini in his film "Amarcord", where the shutters of the exclusive Grand Hotel remain closed.

The beaches are empty and only a few surfers take the opportunity to hit the waves, including Marco Vannucci, 62.

"Here, everything revolves around tourism," he said.