It is 10 in the morning and Pedro, a retired Cordovan, has planted two umbrellas and three chairs on the beachfront of Ferrara, in Torrox, in Malaga. The sea is rough and some waves brush against his small camp. Patient, he gets his feet wet while he waits for his children and grandchildren to arrive a little later. He knows that he cannot leave that space for too long because a municipal ordinance fines up to 300 euros for those who leave their belongings for several hours with the sole objective of saving space on the shore. “This cannot be reserved, it belongs to everyone. I think it’s great that he’s persecuting himself, ”says the man, who bought an apartment years ago in this town in La Axarquía and that the whole family now enjoys it. This urban beach is wide, but between the numerous hammock shops —which spread hundreds out on the sand for five euros a day—, and the arrival of thousands of tourists that multiply the population in summer, the first line is a precious asset. “Whoever wants the best place, get up early,” says Soledad García, also retired, who has been chatting with her friends since early morning, before the sun sets.
“We apply the ordinance to the letter because it cannot be that there is someone who arrives at seven in the morning, sticks his umbrella and does not return until twelve at noon, with his reserved place, like a marquis. We are persecuting the unsupportive”, explains the mayor of Torrox, Óscar Medina (PP), who promoted the measure in 2015. The municipality’s police chief, José Manuel Ruiz, recalls that then trucks loaded with chairs and umbrellas were taken. Today, a van is hardly needed and only on certain days or weekends, because residents and regular visitors already know that they cannot book on the first line. “We don’t chase umbrellas. When we keep watch, we make sure that the belongings have been there for several hours without anyone showing up. We pass once, we come back later, we consult with the surrounding bathers. Only then do we proceed. And if everything is left on the fifth line, we do not act there because they are wide beaches and it does not bother anyone, ”says the police officer.
When towels, chairs or umbrellas are taken, there is no way to identify their owners, so the fine is not direct. It is only when their owners arrive at the town hall to protest —many in bad manners— that they are notified of the fine. “This is like the crane, and to remove your things you have to pay, and on top of that you get the penalty. That’s why almost no one does it, ”says the councilor from Torrox. After a prudential time, the objects removed from the sand end up in the clean point of the town. The measure is also applied in the neighboring municipality of Algarrobo, as confirmed by the mayoress, Natacha Rivas.
Several people enjoy themselves on the Ferrara beach in the town of Torrox, in Malaga, on August 4, 2023. Reserving space there by placing umbrellas, chairs and other items for bathers is prohibited.Garcia-Santos (El Country)
On the Valencian coast, in Calpe, Alicante, for the last five years no one has been able to reserve a space on the beachfront with a sun lounger or an umbrella before 9.30 in the morning. Nor can they be abandoned for more than three hours so that no one can occupy that site. “Given the evidence of installation of these elements without the presence of a person in charge or owner”, indicates the municipal ordinance, the Local Police or the cleaning personnel will remove them and transfer them to the municipal deposit, from where nobody usually collects them. “When someone verifies that their things have disappeared, it is cheaper for them to buy new ones than to pay the fine,” say sources from the Calpino town hall. The penalty established by the local decree is 750 euros and is intended to respond to “numerous complaints” from those who find the beaches occupied and from the cleaning service. “More than once the operator of the tractor that smooths the sand has had to get off to remove an umbrella” that had been placed early in the morning.
The operation is repeated in different tourist locations on the Costa Blanca. In the most famous of all, Alicante’s Benidorm, a report by the British tabloid newspaper Daily Mail this July accused local bathers of hogging spaces on the beach at dawn, starting at 5.30 in the morning, to the detriment of British tourists. “Nobody reserves space on the beaches,” say municipal sources, who deny the existence of an “umbrella war.” Even the earliest bathers stay enjoying the sea for hours, they say. The penalty for reserving space is the same as in Calpe, 750 euros, but the Local Police removes “irregularly installed elements” only when “they are the cause of conflict between different users.”
Added to the Alicante municipalities is Cullera, in Valencia, whose sanctions for reserving a space in the sand are also 750 euros, although they have never been applied. Ongoing complaints from tourists over the years led to the implementation of an ordinance in 2020 under which 150 beach items were removed in just a month and a half last year, but there were no fines. The City Council appeals to civic awareness and trusts in the effectiveness of an information campaign for bathers carried out last year.
Private occupation of the beaches
In other places in the Axarquía region, such as Vélez-Málaga, whose population quadruples in the summer season, the reservation of space for umbrellas is not sanctioned. Neither in Marbella or Estepona, where the complaints point more towards the large amount of space occupied by the beach bars, their terraces and the area for hammocks or Balinese beds, their most sophisticated version. “There are places where not even a towel fits and the beaches are, in practice, private,” say environmental sources.
Other sources explain that in some points on the Marbella coastline “private occupancy of the beach exceeds 40%”. In the summer of 2021, the Malaka Ecologists association began, together with Ecologistas en Acción, a campaign of complaints against beach bars that “urbanize” the coast with fixed infrastructures and exceed the planned occupation with large terraces due to the lack of vigilance from the municipalities.
View of Cala en Porter beach in Menorca, on July 29, 2023. David Arquimbau Sintes (EFE)
On the coast of Catalonia, this year more than 35% of the requests to use the beaches correspond to services such as beach bars or rental of umbrellas and boats. “It is not going towards a privatization model, it is impossible because the Coastal Law of 1988 prohibits it, quality public services are simply offered under concession that temporarily occupy a part of the beaches,” says the Head of the Coastal Service of the Generalitat, Juantxu Barroso. “It may be that there are those who have the perception that the beaches are privatized, but that is not the reality,” he says. Urban beaches can have a space occupation of 50% and natural ones of 10%, “but maximums are never reached,” says Barroso.
One of the objects of harsh criticism due to the presence of paid umbrellas and loungers is Begur, one of the jewels in the heart of the Costa Brava. Its mayoress, Maite Selva, defends “a model of quality, clean and orderly”. Of the eight beaches in the municipality, most of which are small coves between cliffs, five have paid umbrellas. The main outraged are neighbors who consider it “a shame to have to pay” to go to “their beaches”, since visually it gives them the impression that private loungers take up a lot of space.
There are also complaints on social networks for what is considered a privatization of the beaches. The ones that receive the most criticism are those of Aiguablava, despite the fact that it measures 2,580 m2 and the occupied area is 240 m2, with 20 umbrellas and double the number of loungers at 25 euros for half a day, and Sa Tuna, where this year there are six umbrellas and a dozen sun loungers. Selva, who defends “a public model that leaves 80% of the beach free whose objective is to provide a quality service”, regrets that criticism always sounds more than congratulations and advances that “when the concessions end, some the summer that comes, it will be evaluated how it has gone and it will be decided if they are maintained ”.
The Italian model: private management and 30 euros a day to rent a sun lounger
The panorama of the Mediterranean beaches in Italy in summer is that of kilometers of sand sprinkled with thousands of loungers and umbrellas divided by sections and colors, managed by different owners. Most of the beaches are privatized, reports Lorena Pacho. Access to the beach usually consists of a boardwalk that often connects to a bar, restaurant or ice cream parlor. The conditions vary depending on the establishments and the regions, but in general an entrance fee is not paid as such, but the rental of the lounger and umbrella is. The average price is 30 euros per day, which usually increases on weekends or in high season and can reach 100 euros.
By law, access to the sea and transit through these beaches is allowed and is free for everyone, but in these places you cannot place your own towel, sun lounger or umbrella or build sandcastles or the like. In some protected natural places, the majority on the island of Sardinia, paid access has been established that varies from one to six euros for people and around 10 euros for vehicles and a limited number of visitors per day.
Italian regulations, in line with community laws, establish that “there must be a balance” between private and public beaches, so in theory every certain distance there should be a portion of sand on which to settle without paying. But in practice these spaces are getting smaller and smaller, and a striking contrast is also created in the image of the beaches. The managers of the private ones are in charge of cleaning the sand every day and maintenance, while in the public ones the cleaning is the responsibility of the corresponding town hall, which usually does not carry out with the same frequency or tries to unload functions in the private establishments that border the public space. It is common to see pristine private beaches, while the small public ones remain dirty and neglected.
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