by Travel Correspondent and Chris Leadbeater, The Telegraph, August 1, 2018
It is arguably the most spectacular of the islands which adorn the sun-sparkled waters of the Aegean Sea; a Greek gift where giant cliffs rise starkly above the waves - dramatic remnants of the giant volcano which once constituted this steep shard of rock.
But according to new reports emerging from Santorini, this scenery is now coming at a high cost in animal cruelty, with the price being paid by the island's donkey population.
The practice of selling donkey rides to visitors is attracting growing criticism from animal welfare groups, who argue that the creatures are being forced to carry excessive numbers of increasingly overweight tourists from the UK, the USA and Russia.
Coming in for particular fire is the busy route up the cliffs of the west coast - from the harbour at sea level to the capital Fira, which sits some 400 metres (1,312 feet) above the water, on the ridge.
The ascent is popular with cruise passengers who land at the dock, before climbing up to the town. But while many choose to walk the zig-zagging trail which takes about half an hour at a reasonable pace - or board the cable car that makes the leap in two minutes - others pick the "authentic" option of a donkey ride to the top.
This, according to opponents of the "service", leaves the animals struggling with a burden far heavier than they have the strength to cope with, causing spinal injuries and stress.
Animal protection group The Donkey Sanctuary (thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk) has been especially vocal in its condemnation, saying in a statement that "we were dismayed by the conditions we witnessed" on a recent visit to Santorini.
"With the holiday season coming into full swing," the statement adds, "exhausted donkeys and mules are spending long days in the scorching sun, carrying tourists or heavy and harmful rubbish loads, with little to no water, food or shade."
This sense of worry is echoed by Facebook group Help The Santorini Donkeys (facebook.com/santorinidonkeys), which is calling for change on the island.
"Some of the men who keep the donkeys as their livelihood don’t care about the amount of weight they put on the animals," a spokesperson for the group told the Evening Standard.
"The weight put on an animal should be no more than 20 per cent of [its own] weight. This means they should be carrying maximum loads of eight stone.
"But it’s not just tourists that are too heavy for the animals. Workers force the donkeys to carry all kinds of items. I have seen them carrying huge cement blocks and even a washing machine."
A petition - titled "Stop Animal Abuse of Donkeys and Horses in Santorini" - uploaded to the protest website change.org last summer has now accrued over 70,000 signatures.
It claims that "donkeys are used as cruel transportation for people who want the 'real Greek' experience", and that the animals are "forced to stand around in the sun in their own faeces at the side of the path."
Last month, the Donkey Sanctuary wrote to Nikolaos Zorzos, the mayor of Santorini, requesting a meeting to discuss the issue.
The amount of work the donkeys are required to carry out has surged in recent years, as Santorini has become a cornerstone of the holiday industry in Greece. The island receives some two million tourists every year, with around 850,000 travellers arriving on cruise ships.
Such numbers place huge pressure on an outcrop which spreads out to just 35 square miles - and is restricted by its limited infrastructure, narrow roads and unforgiving gradients.
In an interview with The Guardian last August, Mr Zorzos revealed his fears that the island has "reached saturation point".
"The pressure is too much," he commented. "Santorini has developed the problems of a city. Our water consumption alone has gone up [by 46%]. We need desperately to increase supplies but that requires studies, which in turn require technicians and that we cannot afford."
Mr Zorzos has tried to tackle the problem of overcrowding by capping the number of cruise passengers allowed to visit Santorini. Last year, he introduced a limit of 8,000 disembarkees per day - although this is still a considerable figure on a small island that is feeling the strain.
This article was written by Travel Correspondent and Chris Leadbeater from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].