spanish fiestas

Does this look like a new business model? The Tomatina gets privatized

Tomato-flinging fiesta charges participants as local economy runs out of juice

The Tomatina is an hour-long catharsis fueled by more than 100 tons of tomatoes. The event mostly attracts foreign visitors.
The Tomatina is an hour-long catharsis fueled by more than 100 tons of tomatoes. The event mostly attracts foreign visitors.TANIA CASTRO (EL PAÍS)

The small Valencian town of Buñol is gearing up for Wednesday's Tomatina, a popular tomato-hurling celebration that offers participants a picturesque form of collective catharsis. Thousands of outsiders will join the locals in this famous fiesta that charges 10 euros per head for the privilege of being slammed (and socking others) with ripe tomatoes.

Wait a minute. Ten euros a ticket?

That's right. And that's just the basic fee. Anyone wishing to climb in the back of the truck that carries the tomatoes, which affords much better opportunities for long-distance shots, will have to shell out 750 euros.

The 2013 Tomatina would normally end up as a nebulous memory in the minds of its participants, as it does every year, were it not for a notable change that's been introduced this year: a fee to participate.

As such, this event could soon be remembered as the beginning of the privatization of popular fiestas in Spain, where it is possible to saunter from one local celebration to the next uninterruptedly from May through October, with no more price to pay than that exacted by one's own liver.

It is 10 euros for a basic ticket and 750 if you want to stand in a tomato truck

But it was inevitable that Buñol should end up charging an entrance fee for an event that sees the town's population soar from 10,000 to 40,000 on the big day, says the left-wing ruling coalition made up of the United Left, the Socialists and a group called Alternative Left. Municipal coffers are empty. There's no money to pay suppliers, yet the bills keep piling up.

Privatization is the only way out of a problem that's been in the lap of the local government since 1987, when the original organizers of the Tomatina, an association known as Clavarios de San Luis, gave up trying to deal with something that had grown out of all proportion. Donations from local residents were no longer covering costs, never mind turning a profit.

In stepped the local government to save the day. Until this year, that is, when it too threw in the towel as far as free fun is concerned. Buñol's debt last year stood at 4.1 million euros, according to Treasury data. A rift in the local government team prevented the approval of a plan to pay suppliers, and economic management was transferred to the central government. In such a scenario, it might seem like a superfluous expense to hurl over 100 tons of tomatoes at one another during a single hour, at a total cost of 140,000 euros. That's over 2,300 euros a minute.

And that is how the Tomatina became a great metaphor for the economic crisis that is crippling Spain. It is an irresistible image: the round, red fruit bursting like a mirror of the bursting of the real estate bubble, the financial bubble, the debt bubble.

Buñol's debt last year stood at 4.1 million euros, according to Treasury data

Fifteen percent of the proceeds from the sale of 15,000 tickets, which were sold out by the middle of last week, will go to a private firm called Spaintastic. But the overall profits will be bigger for the company that won the no-bid contract to sell the tickets.

Spaintastic pledged to sell 5,200 tickets at 10 euros a piece. The other 9,800 were distributed among 20 subcontractors, but nobody knows how much all of these went for, or how big a cut Spaintastic gets to keep. The only condition was that they could not be sold separately but as part of packs - where the really lucrative business lies.

A company called Festivals All Around, which also organizes trips to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, is charging 80 euros this year for a package that includes transportation to and from Valencia, the entrance fee, a souvenir t-shirt, a tour guide, a sangria party before the event and another bash afterwards. The price last year was 30 euros. What seemed like a ruinous celebration for the town of Buñol does not look like such a bad deal in private hands.

Pulp facts

- A total of 40,000 people took part in the 2012 Tomatina in Buñol, a town in Valencia with some 10,000 inhabitants.

- Only 7.8 percent of participants are from Spain. The rest arrive from some 60 countries in search of an hour of madness.

- This year for the first time, Tomatina visitors will have to pay for the privilege of flinging over-ripe fruit.

- Australians (19.19 percent) are the biggest national community at the event, followed by Japanese (17.94 percent) and Britons (11.20 percent).

"For the last eight to 10 years we had a problem: there is no control over the Tomatina; you don't know how many people are going to show up. And at a mass event, that's a very reckless state of affairs," explains the mayor of Buñol, Joaquín Masmano. "Besides the economic issue, it's also about maintaining our credibility. There are a lot of people who cannot enjoy their tomatoes because they can't even get close to them, and if you're coming all the way from the United States and get left out just because you're a little late, the message you take home is not the right one."

Masmano is backed by the numbers: the more than 40,000 people who showed up last year were packed tight into the 400-meter stretch of road covered by the six authorized tomato trucks. It takes an hour for the vehicles to travel this distance as they inch their way through a multitude from 60 different countries.

It was not always so. The origin of the Tomatina lies in a parade that was held in Buñol on August 29, 1945. As readers might have guessed, the street celebration ended in a tomato fight caused by a row between neighbors. The idea stuck, and tomatoes were hurled around every year until 1956, when it was banned after locals aimed their juicy projectiles at a Falangist who was trying to walk into city hall. After it was reinstated in 1958, new rules were introduced and more people came.

There was a turning point in 1983, when a television news program called Informe semanal aired a story on the Tomatina. By 2002, it had been declared a fiesta of International Tourist Interest. These days it makes the front page of publications like The New York Times, and provides fodder for publicists, screenwriters (We Need to Talk about Kevin) and even Google's creative team, which came up with a doodle for it. Meanwhile, the United States, Colombia and Portugal now have their own versions of the Tomatina.

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