One of the most beautiful islands in the world is barring certain tourists from riding mules and donkeys.
Introduced in 2018 on the Greek island of Santorini, following several petitions launched by people concerned for the wellbeing of animals, the regulation allows only those who weigh less than 100kg or one-fifth of the donkey’s body weight to ride the animals.
While in most cities and holiday hotspots a similar restriction wouldn’t appear particularly significant, it marks a huge change for the wellbeing of donkeys and mules in Santorini, as they are widely used as a means of transport by tourists.
In fact, those arriving on the island by cruise only have the choice to climb from Santorini’s port to its capital city Fira, located on a clifftop 400m above the sea, either by foot, cable car or mules.
Given the scorching heat experienced in Santorini during the summer months and the low number of cable car cabins available when compared to the high number of arrivals, many resort to hiring mules to climb the hundreds of steps separating them from their destinations.
Anastasios Nikolaos Zorzos, who was mayor in Santorini at the time this ban was issued by the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food, acknowledged the historic contribution donkeys have given to the island’s economy.
He told the Guardian in 2018: “There are around 300 donkeys down at the port, but elsewhere too, they have always played a role in our island’s economic and social development. Santorini was practically built with donkeys.”
The ban, which the Greek governmental department said was circulated following “multiple complaints and publications on the living conditions and well-being of domestic animals”, has put the international spotlight on the conditions of some of the animals used to carry people around the holiday hotspot.
As a result of the 2018 regulation, owners of donkeys used for tourism purposes also need to ensure the animals’ wellbeing by guaranteeing they are exercised once a day for at least half an hour and have a continuous supply of drinking water.
But for some, the ban hasn’t gone far enough.
Several animal rights organisations believe donkeys and mules should not be turned into a means of transport for tourists and have shared upsetting pictures showing injuries on the animals they claim are a result of this forced work.
Over the years, an increasing number of tourists have also become more and more conscious about the negative impact riding mules and donkeys over hundreds of steps can have.
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Taking to Tripadvisor, Canadian tourist Melissa said in May she was “shocked” to have learned Santorini continues to offer the donkey taxi service “at the expense of these beautiful, innocent animals”.
The woman claimed to have seen some of the donkeys “with open sores from saddles” and cages on their mouths.
Another recent Santorini visitor, James, argued tourists are also at fault for continuing to pay for this service.
He added: “The government and tourist board need to do something but so do cruise lines and passengers as they are the biggest contribution to this. It puts a stain on any visit to Santorini via cruise unfortunately.”
Cruise liners appear to be aware of the upset many feel when it comes to the Santorini donkeys’ wellbeing, as in 2019 many signed up for the In Their Hooves campaign launched by The Donkey Sanctuary and asked their passengers to use the services provided by donkey responsibly while also pledging to carry out a campaign raising awareness.
Santorini is one of Greece’s most-loved destinations by tourists, and last year overtook pre-pandemic arrival levels, according to South Aegean Tourism Initiative.
Greece in general appears to be adored by many British tourists, with a total of 4.5 million UK passport holders being registered at Greek entry points throughout 2022 – nearly three million more than the previous year.