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Secluded, verdant and just a short dash by superyacht from the Côte D’Azur, the private island of Gallinara could be a perfect billionaire’s bolthole to ride out the pandemic.
But the Italian government is under pressure to block a €25 million deal to sell the property to the son of a Ukrainian aerospace tycoon who is a citizen of Grenada and resident in Montecarlo. Opponents of the selloff want it to be returned to the nation.
The sale has added to existing unease about prime Italian coastal areas and islands falling into foreign hands. Several islands in the Venice lagoon have been acquired by foreign developers and become exclusive resorts, and the Emir of Qatar has bought up swaths of the Sardinian coast.
Under Italian law governing cultural and environmental assets, the state has 60 days to exercise its right of first refusal over the sale of Gallinara, which lies off Italy’s northwestern coast. And with stringent EU budget restrictions lifted under the coronavirus crisis and billions allocated for state investment as part of the pandemic rescue packages, the government has plenty of money to throw around.
“This is a great opportunity for Italy to buy back and make public an island that is unique in the world because of its history, and its ecosystem which has been completely uncontaminated,” local Mayor Riccardo Tomatis said.
Gallinara island “is as delicate as it is beautiful” says local Mayor Riccardo Tomatis | Image via iStock
It needs protection but could be visited in small groups, he said. “It is as delicate as it is beautiful.”
Privately owned by a collection of nine Italian families since the 1970s, few locals have ever visited the tiny isle off the coast of Liguria that looks from afar like a turtle emerging from the waves.
Now Olexandr Boguslayev, the son of Ukrainian oligarch Vyacheslav Boguslayev, has agreed to buy the land and buildings for €25 million, according to the local municipality.
Luca Tamagnini, a photographer who has documented Gallinara over decades, says that selling the island to a non-Italian “is like selling off part of Italy.”
Gallinara’s instantly recognizable quirky shape has made it a symbol of the coastline, he said. “It is part of the identity of the local people. It’s like the Duomo in the piazza, you see it every day.”
Some foreign buyers might have been more welcome, he said. “If it had been bought by George Clooney, no one would mind as Albenga [the nearest mainland town] would be seen as the coolest place in the world. But a mysterious Ukrainian … is not so well received.”
Politicians from parties across the political spectrum — no doubt with an eye on regional elections in Liguria next month — have led calls for the island to be returned to the Italian people.
Raffaela Paita, an MP from the Liguria area, said the island is “a natural jewel,” adding: “It is vital that the government intervene, to stop it becoming the object of disastrous speculative activity.”
There is precedent for that. The state was, after a legal wrangle, able to buy back the island of Budelli, off Sardinia, after it was sold to a New Zealander for €3 million in 2013.
Franco Vazio, a Democratic Party MP from Albenga, issued a statement to say that he had been assured by Dario Franceschini, the cultural heritage minister, that the government would make funds available to buy the island.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture said the ministry was working to exercise its right of first refusal on the sale | Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
“Gallinara is a pearl of extraordinary beauty, a unique place from an environmental, historical, archaeological and naturalistic point of view,” read the statement.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Culture confirmed that the ministry was working to exercise its right of first refusal and was ready to provide the funds for the island.
Olexandr Boguslayev did not respond to multiple requests via his lawyers to comment.
But Tomatis, the Albenga mayor, is cynical about the interest from national politicians so close to the election. “It has been quite amusing to see them try and get close to the action,” he said.
He said he has “nothing against” Boguslayev and would try and work with him if he ends up with the island. “Even if the state doesn’t buy it, it is still better to have someone who will invest and take care of the island.”
Others say the state should spend the money elsewhere. The organizer of the local branch of the far-right League in the municipality, Roberto Tomatis — who shares a surname with the mayor — told Italian media that the local municipality cannot even maintain its existing responsibilities, including historic palaces that have been abandoned.
“We hope that Minister Franceschini can instead find resources for the new wing of the Albenga hospital … I can’t help suspecting that all these politicians that are fighting for our island and our city are more animated by electoral gain than noble intentions, perhaps thinking to regain some votes at the forthcoming regional elections,” he said.
Nicolo Fiori, the owner of the nightclub Le Vele on the mainland facing the island, said he hoped that the purchase by a wealthy outsider could boost a local initiative to attract upscale tourism. “We want to attract a different class of tourists — we are creating a brand, Costa Gallinara, like Costa Smeralda in Sardinia.”
He said that the purchase by Boguslayev made him “as happy as if I had bought it myself. I see him as a man who will want to invest with connections to Montecarlo and the Côte d’Azur that could help bring a new kind of tourist to the area.”
Fiori would like to see the island become an exclusive resort with hotel guests coming directly by boat to his club, but the mayor insists commercial use would not be possible. The island has the maximum level of conservation protection. “You can’t even build so much as a wall,” Tomatis said.
The mayor envisages instead a museum in the existing villa and a beautiful park, with paths for small hiking groups. But at present, the island doesn’t even have running water and electricity. The eventual owner, state or private, may find the island, stunning as it is, is also a deep money pit.