Lean times at Pamplona for running of bulls

PAMPLONA, Spain -- Daredevils sprinting with one-ton fighting bulls swallow an exhilarating cocktail of adrenalin and fear. Now, a new brand of jitters has set in at one of the world's great fiestas as businesses ponder the partypooping impact of economic woe.

Don't bother asking the tens of thousands of revelers who kicked off Pamplona's running of the bulls Monday with a traditional rocket-firing ceremony outside town hall. They're too busy drinking beer or wine or cleaning off the flour, eggs or ketchup they hurled at each other to get the eight-day San Fermin festival off to a merry and messy start.

"People throwing sangria everywhere. It is just unbelievable," said Ricky Birmingham, a 20-year-old from Australia.

"It is nice, but kind of scary," added Theo Franzen, also 20, of Sweden.

No, it is mainly merchants who are feeling the pinch of the world's economic downturn. Rates on hotel rooms are down because of slacker demand, big-spending American and other foreign visitors are harder to find, and bars that usually make a killing off hordes of thirsty patrons from around the globe expect to serve up less booze.

The leaner times are visible elsewhere, too. The Pamplona city hall has cut its budget for the festival more than 10%, to 2.5 million euros ($3.5 million). And two Spanish TV networks that had been bickering over rights to broadcast the morning bull runs have agreed to do it jointly to save on costs.

With Spain's economy in recession and saddled with 17.4% unemployment, and much of the world also in dire straits, here in Pamplona a sobering new reality has set in. The party is far from over, but it might be watered down this time.

"We thought San Fermin would always fill up," local entrepreneur Mikel Ollo said. "We created a fictitious bubble, and that bubble has burst."

Ollo runs a company called Incoming Navarra, which organizes VIP packages for San Fermin visitors, arranging posh accommodations, front-row views of the runs from balconies overlooking the route, a personalized tour guide to explain what they are seeing, breakfast while they watch and myriad other forms of pampering.

The price depends on what the client wants to do, but last year, for instance, one customer dished out 4,000 euros a day, Ollo said. In general the service costs about 700 euros ($980) to 1,000 euros ($1,400) a day. It was particularly popular among people from the U.S., Russia and France.

"They are clients with lots of buying power. In the last few years, fewer have come but the ones that do spend more," he said.

Now, however, with demand slumping, the company has devised a scaled-down package with a hotel room and a separate balcony along the route, for 155 euros ($217) a day.

"Obviously, it is not the same level of attention as in the VIP package, but it is a very good deal," Ollo said.

The hotel occupancy rate in general is expected to be about 90%, similar to last year, but for the first time in years rooms are going for as little as 90 euros a night, especially on the city outskirts, said Nacho Calvo of the Navarra Restaurant and Hotel Association.

"Rates have come down a lot and the weakness of the dollar against the euro is taking its toll on tourism," he said.

Pamplona has around 4,000 hotel rooms, about a third of which fill up with foreigners flocking to get a taste of the festival that inspired Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises. Many are New Zealanders, French, Australian or American.

At Casino Eslava, a famed bar near a hostel where Hemingway often stayed during visits to San Fermin, co-owner Ricardo Ubanell said things have been slow since last year and he expects his cash register to take another hit.

"Our expectations are lower because of the crisis, no doubt about it," he said.

Nonetheless, he has hired nine extra waiters to handle the influx of partiers and ordered just as much alcohol as previous years.