Its reputation was sullied by Silvio Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" sex parties, and now the holiday island of Sardinia is the subject of fresh indignity - tourists are stealing the silky white sand of its beaches.

Around five tonnes of sand was intercepted last northern summer at Cagliari airport alone and a similar quantity has been confiscated so far this year, as an increasing number of visitors have been scooping the sand into plastic bottles or bags - often carefully labelled with the name of the beach - and trying to take it home as a souvenir.

Many are stopped by vigilant airport officials who remind them that taking sand, shells and any other natural materials from the island is an offence, but the problem has been growing, campaigners say.

Indignant islanders have raised the issue with the authorities and a group has created a Facebook page called "Sardinia is being robbed and pillaged".

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"With the excuse of acquiring a souvenir, tourists are taking from the island what nature took millions of years to create," the activists said. "The theft of sand is a crime."

The Facebook page has attracted nearly 20,000 likes, and nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for tougher penalties for visitors caught with smuggled consignments of sand.

"Even sand or a simple stone is part of Sardinia's natural heritage and should be left where it is found," one supporter wrote. "I hope that people who are caught will receive the punishment they deserve."

While the amount of sand, pebbles and shells being stolen is unlikely to put a dent in Sardinia's hundreds of idyllic beaches, campaigners say it is a matter of principle.

They have called for information panels to be installed at airports and ports in an attempt to educate tourists about the importance of leaving beaches, bays and coves as they find them.

"We've beefed up efforts to prevent the theft of sand from our beaches," Donatella Spano, a councillor responsible for environmental protection, told La Repubblica newspaper.

Sardinia, renowned for mega-yachts and millionaires' villas, is blessed with hundreds of miles of idyllic beaches, many of them boasting sugary white sand reminiscent of the South Pacific or the Caribbean.

The beaches of the Maddalena archipelago are particularly stunning, with one island famous for sand of a distinctive pink hue.

Some of the sand was taken from beaches along the Costa Smeralda or Emerald Coast, where Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister, has a villa - the setting of his infamous parties.