Ostia, a seaside town less than 20 miles from Italy's capital, has suffered as Romans opt to spend their vacations in the city due to the country's financial crisis.
LIDO DI OSTIA, ITALY — For many Romans, this seaside town at the fringe of the capital has long been an arena of summertime rituals, where crowds of children built wobbly castles of soot-colored sand, parents snoozed in clusters, and beachfront resorts bustled with sun-soaked hoards of vacationers.
Not this year. Even now, at the height of the summer, chairs sit forlornly under the colorfully patterned beach umbrellas. Where there were once waiting lists for changing cabins, now there are vacancies. Despite their whimsical names — il Corallo (the coral), il Delfino (the dolphin), l’Oasi (the oasis) — the dozens of bathing establishments that have served as a seasonal escape for generations of Romans cannot escape hard times.
Short on cash after a series of belt-tightening reforms passed by the government, and concerned about their future in a moment of financial uncertainty, more Romans are reluctantly opting to spend their summer in the city, even though this beach is just 25 kilometers, or 16 miles, away.
“Rome may be close, but gas is expensive, so people think twice about coming out to the beach,” said Susanna Corti, the owner of La Vela, one of the bathing establishments. Romans used to flock to Ostia during sizzling August weekdays, but now they tend to concentrate their visits on the weekend, she said, adding, “People are feeling the crisis in a big way.”
If leisure is any measure of prosperity, then Ostia presents itself as a sobering gauge of Italy’s economic health. But the drop off in Italian vacationers is not just here.
The Italian Hoteliers Association released grim numbers this month, suggesting that 5 out of every 10 Italians would stay home this summer, and that the numbers of Italians taking a vacation this year would decline about 19 percent.
Nearly 52 percent of those polled cited dwindling personal finances as the primary reason to not take a vacation, according to the association. (Last year, economics accounted for about 43 percent of stay-at-home vacations, it said.)
“In recent memory, there hasn’t been such a generalized and drastic drop,” Bernabò Bocca, president of the association, said in a statement.
Though the days are long gone when Italian factories, businesses and shops shut down for August, forcing Italians to take their vacations en masse, most Italians still chose to go on vacation during the summer. So the numbers, he said, indicated a broad trend.
Renato Papagni, the owner of Le Dune, one of the largest establishments in Ostia and the national president of Assobalneari, an association of bathing establishments, said some seaside spots had been harder hit than others. But clearly the decline was being felt everywhere.
Tourism to Sardinia is down 30 percent so far this year, according to the association’s calculations, as a result, perhaps, of the cost of getting to the island. Some parts of Campania are also struggling, as is Italy’s Adriatic coast, despite campaigns to lure tourists.
“Over all, the decline at the seaside this year has been around 10 to 12 percent,” Mr. Papagni said.
In Ostia, he and others said, even those who do come are scrimping, deepening a trend over the last few years. Changing cabins usually rent for the entire season, which runs from May 1 to Sept. 30, for about €3,000, or $3,700. This year, cabins are still available even with reduced prices. More families are sharing.
“There’s been doubling up for the past few years because of the costs,” Mr. Papagni said.
Bathing establishments charge entrance fees, so many Romans have also been heading to Ostia’s many free beaches, where renting a sunbed costs €5 and putting a towel on the beach is free.
“I think there are many Romans who find that it’s no longer possible to do what they used to,” said Karla Duceschi, who was soaking up the sun along with her nieces on a free beach. Bringing a family to the lido quickly added up, she said. “Everything costs more,” she said. “Only our salaries have stayed the same.”
Until this year, Daniela, who works as a cook at a school cafeteria and declined to give her last name, used to go to the beach in Croatia during the summer. Now that her taxes — and expenses — have gone up, she has settled for an occasional afternoon tan at a free beach in Ostia.
“With all the talk in the media about the crisis, people are thinking twice about their holidays,” she said. “People are afraid to spend money because no one knows when the crisis will end.”
The restaurant at La Playa in Ostia used to be the bathing establishment’s main draw, said Angelo Radano, one of the resort managers. Now visitors bring bag lunches or opt for inexpensive snacks rather than leisurely seaside meals.
The restaurant is “inactive,” Mr. Radano said, and clients prefer the self-service bar. People just do not have as much disposable income. “If you keep milking the same cow for too long a time,” he lamented, “sooner or later it’s going to dry out.”
At V-Lounge, one of the higher-end resorts at Ostia, Stefano Boccolucci caters to the needs of the regular clients, who are feeling the pinch less than many others (the top cabin here costs €9,000). But he, too, has noticed some changes.
“People who last year went away for three-week vacations are now only going away for one,” he said.
Even Italian lawmakers — among the highest paid in Europe — are cutting their days off: Parliament recessed for the summer on Aug. 8 and will reopen for the lower house on Sept. 3 and in the Senate a day later, the shortest vacation in five years, according to Italian news reports.
The stay-at-home trend is so pronounced that it has spawned a music video, called “Resto a Roma” (I’m staying in Rome), produced by Radio Globo, a station in Rome that spoofs the official video for Uefa Euro 2012, the singer Oceana’s “Endless Summer.” It has drawn 840,000 hits on line since it was released in July.
“If we make fun of ourselves, we can tolerate the crisis better,” said Alessandro Tirocchi, a morning program D.J. who wrote and performs in the video. “The crisis is common to everyone, we don’t have a lot of ways to beat it, so why not laugh at ourselves.”