What the donkeys tell us about tourism…

donkey on SantoriniThe put-upon donkeys of Santorini were towards the back of last Saturday’s Guardian. An accompanying photograph showed the steep rise from the old port. The sea sparkled deep, the buildings shone white against the blue.

And a pair of weighty male tourists sat astride two of the over-burdened beasts, carrying cameras and an incidental metaphor about tourism.

This story spoke to me in different ways. Partly, it spoke to a long-lost version of me: young, a bit adventurous, a bit lonely, and drawn to Greece in the summer. First with a good schoolfriend, staying on Crete, and other years solo with a sleeping bag and a small tent.

I don’t remember much about Santorini; not even if I had that tent or just a sleeping bag. Here is what I do remember, or think I do. The sand where I slept was black, the sea deep blue, the buildings hard white in the sunshine. And I recall that haul from the old port where the ferry from Athens dropped off the backpacks with young people attached.

As used to happen then, and seemingly still does, the locals wanted you on those donkeys. Being young, fit and broke, I carried on walking.

Santorini is a volcanic island of great beauty and a place blessed/cursed by tourism. And those donkeys have had enough. The demands of carting sometimes overweight cruise passengers up the hill from the port to Fira has resulted in a record number “spinal injuries, saddle sores and exhaustion”.

Greece was slow to act, but tardy legislation by veterinarians at the ministry of agriculture will now make it illegal for owners to burden animals with “any load exceeding 100 kilograms or one-fifth of [their] weight”. Obese cruise-lovers beware.

Those knackered donkeys stand as an image for the insatiable nature of tourism. Not so many tourists went to the island in the days when I slept in the beach in the early 1980s. Were the backpackers in their early or mid-twenties helping the island or being a nuisance? Hard to say now, but the nuisance has moved on a pace since then.

The island is now a magnet for cruise ships, those weird floating cities that loom over the world’s precious places. If you have seen photographs of these top-heavy behemoths dwarfing the fragile antiquity of Venice, you will know the picture.

From 2021, huge cruisers over 55,000 tonnes will be banned from Venice city, banished instead to dock on the mainland at Marghera.

On the day of writing, four cruise ships were due to dock at Santorini, according to the island’s cruise ship calendar: the Mein Schiff, the Rhapsody of The Seas, the Seabourn Odyssey and the Coast Deliziosa. The island reportedly receives 800,000 cruisers a year, according to Santorini’s Cruise Ship Timetable; and for ‘cruisers’ read people, as there can’t be that many ships, even in a world increasingly obsessed with cruising.

Going on a cruise used to be grand and expensive; now it is commonplace and not so expensive. Whether this is good or not depends on perspective. I won’t ever go on a cruise, but that’s not for high-minded reasons so much as that my wife won’t tolerate the notion: her idea of hell is to be cooped up on a ship with too much food and drink. “You’ll have to go on you own,” she says.

I might well like a cruise, while also feeling guilty about bruising the environment. Then again, I’d love to fly more, as we did last year on a trip to Australia – and that damages the world, too.

There isn’t an easy way to balance the desire to travel with the problems it can inflict on those who are visited.

Giving the donkeys of Santorini a break is a good start, or at least the cruisers could go on a diet (not easy on a cruise, apparently). Next year, the lovely Greek island will limit to 8,000 a day the number of cruisers who can visit. Cruises can’t be stopped, and neither should they, but they should be made to account for the harm they do the once-quiet places they loom over.

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