Thousands of thrill seekers were set to race ahead of pounding hooves at the famed running of the bulls beginning yesterday in Pamplona, but Spain’s most storied fiesta is being overshadowed by a crisis in the bullring.
Grim economic times are sending a chill through the national pastime for the second year in a row, putting a damper on Pamplona’s week-long party, and just days after it ends on Sunday, a proposed regional bullfighting ban could be approved in another part of Spain.
Pamplona’s historic old quarter always gets the international spotlight because its bullfights are preceded by hoards of humans chased by bulls that invariably end up goring some humans on cobblestoned streets en route to bloody deaths in the ring.
However, across Spain, the number of bullfights at pueblo parties has dropped from about 1,000 in 2008 to a projected 800 or less this year, as local governments that subsidized small-town fights cut budgets because of declining tax revenue.
Pamplona merchants said fewer tourists were flowing into the city of 250,000 for its biggest event of the year — and spending less money than they did in the pre-crisis Spanish economic boom that ended in 2008.
In the sprawling main plaza on the eve of the party, Jose Correa glumly gazed at a crowd numbering hundreds instead of the typical thousands he used to see from the US, Australia, the UK, Spain and many other European nations.
There were plenty of people speaking English instead of Spanish while they downed beer and red wine on the streets outside packed bars, but few were buying the T-shirts emblazoned with bulls and wine skins Correa used to sell by the dozens each hour to the partying masses.
“Normally you wouldn’t be able to walk out there,” he said. “It’s the crisis, another year of it.”
And in small towns across Spain, bullfights, or corridas in Spanish, are simply being canceled because the subsidies local governments provided to pull them off became a luxury when town councils were forced to make cuts to maintain essential services.
Making matters worse for bullfighting aficionados, the vast northeastern Catalonia region where more than 10 percent of Spain’s 46 million people live could wind up without bullfights when provincial legislators vote on a proposed ban in the middle of this month.
That would shut down Catalonia’s last bullring in the city of Barcelona, though it wouldn’t ban other bull spectacles like correbou, where people chase bulls through the streets and bouembolat, where bulls are forced to run around with flaming wax balls on their horns.
Animal rights activists say the gory spectacles are one of the planet’s most blatant forms of animal cruelty. They hope a ban in Catalonia nine years after the Canary Islands enacted a similar one could prompt other Spanish regions to follow suit.
“It would be a huge step forward, Catalonia telling Spain and the rest of the world that they are not for torturing animals,” said Mimi Bekhechi, special projects manager and anti-bullfighting campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Bullfight defenders say the tradition is still so strong that bans are unthinkable across the rest of Spain, and especially in Pamplona.
“It’s a tradition here,” Correa said. “There’s no party if there aren’t any bulls.”
However, Spain’s debt woes coupled with 20 percent unemployment and government austerity spending cuts could keep down the number of small town corridas for years.
Tourists in Pamplona, made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, are finding bargains in a place where hotels no longer sell out three to four months before the event. Rooms were still available for about 100 euros (US$125), with some vacancies even in some top-class hotels, Nacho Calvo of the Navarra Restaurant and Hotel Association said.
Bullfighting promoter Luis Miguel Ballesteros two years ago put on 27 or 28 small town bull spectacles in villages with populations ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 people each across the Castilla-Leon region, part of Spain’s historic heartland.
This year, he’s down to nine or 10 because the rest can’t come up with the 30,000 euro to 35,000 euro subsidy payments they used to give him for putting on corridas costing 80,000 euros to 100,000 euros.
“They’re spending less money on bulls so they can pay for education,” Ballesteros said.
In the Mediterranean seaside resort of Estepona, city officials couldn’t find a promoter to stage bullfights at the local festival starting yesterday.
“It did surprise us, but we understand there is not a lot of money out there,” town councilor Carmen Ocana said.
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