August 3, 2012 / 5:08 PM / 7 years ago

Crowds shun Italian beaches as umbrella men strike

ROME (Reuters) - Italian beaches were devoid of their usual August crowds on Friday as beach clubs staged a short strike, the latest chapter in an emotive conflict over right of access to the Mediterranean country’s sun-soaked coast.

The strike - organized by the beach workers’ union during peak season - was called to protest against a government plan that would see the right to operate patches of seafront decided by auction from 2016.

Although it is state property, access to much of the Italian coast has long been controlled by the beach clubs, which blanket the sand with umbrellas and sun loungers and charge beach-goers to use them.

Access to beaches is a hot political issue in Italy, where it is traditional to abandon the sweltering cities for the coast during the August holiday season.

But as temperatures edged up to 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) on Friday, rows of colorful beach umbrellas the length of Italy remained unfurled.

Beach-goers in Italy generally opt for sun loungers rather than lying directly on the sand.

Determined sun-seekers not put off by news of the two-hour strike were impeded by tied-up sun loungers and closed umbrellas carpeting much of the sand as 30,000 beach clubs refused to open.

Environmentalist groups have long protested that the beach clubs’ grip illegally prevents free public access to the sea, staging protests to reclaim the beaches in a campaign the Italian media have dubbed the “beach umbrella war”.

But the beach workers’ union says the government’s proposal for auctions will favor multinational companies over smaller local businesses, putting 30,000 beach business and 600,000 workers at risk.

A parasol and sun lounger set can cost from 20 euros (15.55 pounds) to 70 euros a day in more upscale clubs, which run bars, restaurants and changing facilities for customers.

Italy’s coast has not been immune to the financial turmoil convulsing the country, which is struggling to juggle a heavy debt burden and rising borrowing costs.

The beach workers’ union says June and July were quiet months, and that visitor numbers at beach clubs were down by 5 to 40 percent compared to last year as cash-strapped Italians forgo seaside holidays.

Editing by Andrew Osborn

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