Cutbacks put squeeze on bullfighting

Spain's world-famous Pamplona bullfighting festival is in danger of being overshadowed by a crisis in the sport.

A proposed regional bullfighting ban is combining with grim economic times to send a chill through the national pastime.

From tomorrow for a week Pamplona's historic old quarter comes under the international spotlight with its bullfights preceded by thousands of thrillseekers chased by bulls that invariably end up goring some people on cobblestoned streets en route to bloody deaths in the ring.

But across Spain, the number of bullfights has dropped from about 1,000 in 2008 to a projected 800 or less this year, as local governments that have always subsidised small-town bullfights cut budgets because of declining tax revenue.

Bullfights, or corridas in Spanish, have become a luxury when cuts must be made by town councils to maintain funding for schools, social programmes and road repairs.

Making matters worse for bullfighting aficionados, the vast north-eastern Catalonia region where more than 10% of Spain's 46 million people live could wind up without bullfights when provincial politicians vote on a proposed ban later this month.

That would shut down Catalonia's last bullring in the city of Barcelona, although it would not 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 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," Mimi Bekhechi, special projects manager and anti-bullfighting campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Bullfight defenders insist the tradition is still so strong that bans are unthinkable across the rest of Spain. They concede, however, that the country's debt woes coupled with 20% unemployment and government austerity spending cuts could keep down the number of small town corridas for years.

In Pamplona, the crisis is expected to take a toll for tourism and non-stop street parties during its weeklong festival of bullfighting made famous by Ernest Hemingway's novel "The Sun Also Rises".

Hotels used to sell out three to four months before the event - but not this year.

"You can still find good quality rooms going for around €100 and vacancies even in some top class hotels, something unheard of four years ago," Nacho Calvo of the Navarra Restaurant and Hotel Association.

At the plush, sought-after AC Ciudad de Pamplona hotel, "we have seen fewer foreigners, and this year the absence of Americans is notable, there are hardly any", said manager Gabriel Pascual.

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 cannot afford the up to €35,000 subsidy they used to give him for putting on corridas costing up to €100,000.

"The first thing they are cutting are the bullfights, they're spending less money on bulls so they can pay for education," Ballesteros said.

Things are so bad in Estepona, a Mediterranean seaside resort of quaint whitewashed homes, that city officials could not find a promoter willing to stage bullfights at the local festival starting tomorrow.

Estepona - a town of 70,000 that doubles in size each summer as tourists pour in - normally spends €250,000 euros on its week-long summer festival of music, parades, food and drink.

But this year there will be no public spending and no parade. A children's show that used to be free will charge admission. Instead of hiring big-name musicians for concerts, Estepona put out a call for local musicians who will play for free.

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