Tourists urged to stop riding donkeys up the steep steps of Greek island Santorini

Tourists urged to stop riding donkeys up the steep steps of Greek island Santorini

The Greek island of Santorini is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Every day, nearly 17,000 visitors disembark cruise ships to admire the stunning views - multi-colored cliffs carved by volcano, white-washed architecture clutching the hillside, and of course, pitch-perfect sunsets over the vibrant Aegean Sea.

To get the most spectacular view, tourists seek higher ground, climbing 588 steep steps up to the top of the town of Fira. Hearty travelers are up for the challenge, while others take a cable car or ride on the back of a donkey. However, activists call the latter form of transport a cruel tradition. Due to over-tourism and overweight visitors, Santorini donkeys have suffered serious health issues, like exhaustion, saddle sores and spinal injuries.

Nikos Zorzos, the mayor of the island, is collaborating with activists and cruise line agencies to address the issue. "The campaign is about to start," he told The Guardian. "Representatives from the cruise liner association were here in my office this week promising to raise awareness [of the problem] and from our side we’ll be distributing information leaflets. Our mules and donkeys are part of our tradition. Younger owners, especially, have understood that they need to be looked after."

"Our In Their Hooves campaign aims to encourage tourists to stop and think before using donkey taxis to climb the steep steps at Fira port," stated Catherine Rice, a PR rep at The Donkey Sanctuary, which launched the initiative. "It suggests holiday-makers consider whether donkeys and mules are being treated humanely, have enough shade and water, as well as whether loads they are being asked to carry are suitable. If not, other options, such as walking or taking a cable car, might be a more responsible mode of transport."

In the past, visitors to the scenic isle have witnessed examples of animal abuse and complained about the donkeys' treatment. Last summer more than 100,000 people signed a petition on Change.org, condemning the "mindless and unnecessary animal torture."

"These donkeys are forced to stand around in the sun in their own faces at the side of the path and all they do is go up and down, up and down carrying people who are too lazy to just walk or take cable car," claims the petition's creator. "In addition, the farmers give them lashings to make them go faster up the path when carrying tourists... You can see the sadness in their eyes." What's more, the trek is journey is reportedly "only a 30 minute walk."

However, now local officials are finally taking action. "The measure will really begin being enforced this year when no more than 8,000 people, spaced out during the course of a day, are permitted to come ashore," explained Zorzos. "We’ve taken concrete steps to improve the welfare of donkeys and now with this campaign and the reduction in cruise passengers I am beginning to feel optimistic."