Known for its white-washed buildings carved into rugged cliff tops, winding streets accented with blue-roofed churches and vibrant tangerine sunsets on the vast volcanic caldera, Santorini is a popular holiday destination. Drawing in almost 10% of all visitors to Greece, the Cycladic Island, and its main towns Fira and Oia attract over 2 million visitors each year. Whilst tourism undoubtedly expands the Greek economy: increasing employment and income, improving social services, living standards, and developing regions and infrastructure – the industry can also stain towns with overcrowding, pollution and erosion. But in Santorini, no one bears the brunt of over-tourism more than donkeys who are used and abused as ‘tourist taxis’.
In Fira, donkeys and mules are lined up by their owners to take tourists from the town’s port up to the clifftop capital of the island 400 metres above sea level. In the absence of a road, a cable car exists, but with only five cabins with space for 6 people in each, it is not enough for the thousands that arrive at the port every day. As Evangelia Konsta, a spokeswoman for Thera council told the Guardian in 2018: “Cruise passengers…can go up by foot, cable car, donkey or mule [but] the choice is limited to two options. In the heat, not everyone is so keen on the first.” In Oia, where travellers flock to watch the iconic sunset, many first enjoy lunch and a swim at Ammoudi port, 600 steps down from the clifftop. With the one road down often gridlocked by congested taxis, the alternative falls to foot or hoof.
An eyewitness report published by PETA Germany revealed that the animals are forced to carry heavy loads all day long without access to adequate water and shade. Whilst veterinary recommendations state donkeys shouldn’t carry more than 20% of their weight, roughly 50kg. Most adults exceed that. The demand of carrying passengers up hundreds of steps in the scorching Mediterranean sun has led to more equines suffering from spinal injuries, joint pain, saddle sores and exhaustion. Some donkeys are not given any aftercare, with wounds and abrasions left untreated as they are forced to carry suitcases or rubbish around town at night. Whilst the equines live for 25-40 years, working donkeys, especially those forced to carry heavy loads, often die earlier. This treatment violates Greece’s animal-welfare laws but is tolerated by profit-driven owners and the island authorities. However, the industry of commercial riding still supports entire communities of the poorest families in Greece.
A few years ago, after photos circulated the internet of overweight tourists riding the animals, international pressure mounted on the Greek government to enact legislation. A bill put forward by the agriculture ministry to limit the overburdening of animals has now been passed, enshrining in law that donkeys or mules cannot carry any load exceeding 100kg or 1/5 of their weight. According to the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food, rules were also implemented to ensure they get at least 30 minutes of exercise and access to drinking water. In the same year, almost 109,000 people signed an e-petition against the donkeys being used as “cruel transportation for people who want the ‘real Greek’ experience.”
However, the controversial practice continues to occur and the implementation of rules is left unregulated. The idea of a ride on a donkey or mule is associated with islands such as Santorini, Rhodes, and Hydra, where historically the equine animals were harnessed as transport amid the islands’ harsh topography. The silent workers of Greek islands for hundreds of years, donkeys and mules built the paradises that holidaymakers now get to visit. Additionally, they are still used by locals in many regions, such as nearby Folegandros, transporting goods and travel between towns.
The harsh reality is that most donkeys and mules would be abandoned by their owners if they stopped working. Tourists have been urged by the 2019 ‘In Their Hooves’ campaign, an incentive launched by The Donkey Sanctuary in conjunction with the cruise-line industry, to stop and think before forcing donkeys to make vertiginous climbs. The initiative seeks to share the responsibility for animal care with tourists as well as muleteers, encouraging visitors to consider their quality of treatment before condoning it with a ride. With tourists fuelling the industry, local opponents believe it is up to tourists to stop it.
As one Santorini resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the London Centrist: “If you feel sorry for them – write about it on the internet.
“It is tourists that need to do something about it, to change something about it.”
Sources: PETA UK, Guardian, The Greek Reporter, The Donkey Sanctuary, AFAR