La Tomatina: Spain's epic tomato fight now comes at a price

The world's most famous food fight will cost participants 10 euros this year, prompting angry cries about the privatization of Spanish culture.

Heino Kalis/Reuters
Revellers battle with tomatoes during the annual 'Tomatina' (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia Wednesday, August 28, 2013. The origin of the tomato fight is disputed - everyone in Bunol seems to have a favorite story - but most agree it started around 1940, in the early years of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship.
Heino Kalis/Reuters
Revellers on a truck throw tomatoes into the crowd during the annual 'Tomatina' (tomato fight) in the Mediterranean village of Bunol, near Valencia August 28, 2013.

The world’s most famous tomato fight, La Tomatina, in Spain’s tiny Mediterranean city of Buñol charged an entry fee this year for the first time in history: 10 euros ($13).

For over half a century, thousands have congregated every year on the last Wednesday in August in the eastern town of about 10,000 people. It's been called the biggest anger-management exercise in the world. 

The Tomatina is Spain’s second most internationally known event after Pamplona’s running of the bulls, and it's part of Buñol’s week-long summer festival. The tradition is intensely fun and messy, and is a liberating experience in which targeting strangers with tomatoes, or being targeted, is part of a mass catharsis.

But that fun, at least for outsiders, will no longer be free. The cash-strapped municipality began charging an entry fee this year, and hired a private company to organize ticket sales. The decision has drawn the ire of many Spaniards who criticize this as “the privatization of popular festivities” that for centuries have been part of Spanish culture.

Local officials said the municipality needs more resources to finance the hour-long fight, which incidentally is a great way to clean the cobblestone streets and even the skin, courtesy of tomato’s acidity. But revenue from the giant food fight will generously exceed the 140,000 euro cost of hosting the event, critics say.

This year, more than 20,000 people registered for the event. A privileged few got to throw 130,000 kilos of tomatoes from trucks, and paid 750 euros each to toss their bright-red ammunition from above street level. Those on the street reuse what has already been thrown.

A quarter of the tickets were reserved for residents, and the remaining 15,000 were sold off to visitors from 60 countries, the majority from Australia, Japan, the UK, and the US.

Buñol actually had a net income of 300,000 euros in 2012 from the tourism brought in by Tomatina, and this year’s event is expected to generate more, despite limiting the number of participants and, of course, the tomatoes.

The origin of the tomato tradition is disputed, but some say in the 1940s a group of residents got into a tomato fight, broken up by the police. The next year, more villagers brought their own tomatoes to repeat the fight, until again the police ended the party.

In 1950 authorities allowed the fight to take place, only to go on and ban it again the following year. But the numbers just kept growing, even after police jailed several people. Eventually in 1957 it was institutionalized as part of Buñol’s official festival.

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