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Italy's trying to crack down on tax evaders in an effort to reduce its almost two trillion euro public debt. Tax police have launched a campaign of dockside raids on many owners of luxury yachts who are suspected of hiding their true incomes. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the campaign's prompted a yacht exodus. Many boat owners are simply weighing anchor and setting course for more tax-friendly Mediterranean marinas.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: On-the-spot tax inspections began last winter in Cortina d'Ampezzo, the trendy ski resort where many owners of Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis declared incomes of less than $30,000 a year. It's summer now, and time to hunt down yacht owners. Tax police arrive dockside unannounced, board boats and check owners' details against their tax files. The raids have sent shock waves through the yachting community.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

POGGIOLI: Cala Galera is a large private marina on the Tuscan coast. It has close to 1,000 berths.

PIETRO CAPITANI: Clearly and definitely we at the moment are down with respect to other years for sure.

POGGIOLI: Pietro Capitani is the director of the marina. He points to the vast expanse of empty berths, and then makes a shooting gesture to his temple.

CAPITANI: We are at moment at almost 40 percent less than last year. So, we are close to the (makes banging noise) for sure, for sure.

POGGIOLI: Since the tax crackdown was announced in March, around 30,000 boats have fled Italy, seeking safer havens - Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro to the east, France and Spain to the west, and Tunisia and Malta to the south. With the boats gone, there's no way to track down the wealthy owners. The Italian association of marinas says the yacht exodus has cost the Italian economy some $350 million this year in lost revenues from marina fees and services, and sales of fuel. Tax authorities are unrepentant, saying it's important to strike fear in tax dodgers' hearts. It's estimated that tax evasion cost Italy some $160 billion a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

POGGIOLI: A few miles from Cala Galera, Porto Santo Stefano was once a favorite stop for luxury yachts cruising the clear turquoise waters of the Tuscan marine sanctuary. Fashion designer Valentino's yacht was a constant presence, as were the megaboats of Italian jet-setters. Today, it's as empty as the Cala Galera marina. At a waterfront sail-repair shop, Paola Valenti has little to do.

PAOLA VALENTI: (Through Translator) There are less than half the boats there were last year. Boats used to have to drop anchor and wait off shore for a berth to open up. This year, nothing, nothing, nothing.

POGGIOLI: One of the first boat tax raids was in April in the southern port of Bari. There, tax inspectors found yachts owned by people who declared almost no income. One of the most brazen cases was a yacht worth $1.5 million whose owner had never even filed a tax return. Despite her diminished income, Valenti has little sympathy for tax-dodging yacht owners.

VALENTI: (Through Translator) If you own a boat, you have to have a certain declared income. You can't earn less than the sailor who works for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

POGGIOLI: Nearby, at the Enoteca del Molo, an elegant wine bar and restaurant, owner Stefano Guerini is resigned to the fact that the season has been a total loss. After many years catering to the wealthy yachting crowd, the economic crisis is causing pain, and he's closing shop.

STEFANO GUERINI: Me, I'm moving for other place in the world - for Asian market, to Africa. I don't want to stay here, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: It's nighttime, and the parish priest leads a procession for the patron saint.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

POGGIOLI: At sea, local residents have decked out their little boats and fishing vessels with lights. But there's little sense of celebration. In the darkness, the crescendo of foghorns sounds like a lament for the uncertain future of this yacht haven.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORNS BLOWING)

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, Porto Santo Stefano, Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Surf's up. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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