The bulls of Pamplona will live to run another day, after the annual San Fermin festival has been cancelled over public health fears.

Every July the bullfighting festival in Northern Spain draws crowds of tourists from around the world. During the week, the town of 200000 attracts over a million visitors who come to see the daily stampede of bulls through the narrow streets towards the bullfighting arena.

This cancellation is the first in over 80 years, as a tradition that was only interrupted once before by the 1930s Spanish Civil War.

Spain has been particularly hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed over 28,000 people.


While the country cautiously opens to tourism from the rest of the EU bloc countries, it was decided that the San Fermin festival was too high risk and the decision was taken in April to cancel it.

Animal rights activists have welcomed the decision to cancel the event which sees tens of bulls killed daily in the bullring for sport.

They have argued that it should be a permanent end for the event which relies on custom from international tourists coming to run and spectate.

"The absence of this cruel spectacle this year should mark the new normal for bulls, who would otherwise have been chased, tormented, and killed in Pamplona," said Emily Rice, spokesperson for PETA Australia.

"The bullfighting industry has been kept on its last legs in part by tourist money," of which Australians and New Zealanders play a part.

The tradition sees scores of runners injured by bulls every year. Photo / San Fermin, Unsplash
The tradition sees scores of runners injured by bulls every year. Photo / San Fermin, Unsplash

While there are no bulls this year, protesters have turned up on the first day of the festival to call for an end to bull running.

Using the traditional red bandannas of the festival as face coverings against the coronavirus, activists from the local group AnimaNaturalis have been filmed snapping "banderillas" - the decorated spears used to dispatch bulls in the ring.

Residents and those pro-bullfighting have also been dressing up in the traditional white clothes and red bandannas.


Hundreds of extra police have had to be deployed to oversee social distancing measures, according to Euronews. Although the festival has been cancelled they wish to prevent impromptu street parties or confrontation between pro-bullfighters and animal rights protesters.

The absence of international visitors will be sorely felt by the local economy. Earlier this year PETA international offered the city €250,000 ($400,000) if they committed to ending the bull festival. However, this amount is nowhere near the amount brought in annually by festivities.

The local tourism board has said the festival's cancellation represents a shortfall of €100 million ($172 million) in lost tourism spend.

Silvia Azpilcueta, head of commerce for the Pamplona tourism board hopes the event will return next year.

"There's a lot of cultural activity, music, gastronomy, friendship gatherings," she told Euronews. "The bulls are just a part of it."

San Fermin: Over 1 million tourists arrive in the Spanish town every year. Photo / San Fermin, Unsplash
San Fermin: Over 1 million tourists arrive in the Spanish town every year. Photo / San Fermin, Unsplash

It is not only the livestock and animal rights activists which will be breathing a sigh of relief.


Local hospitals and emergency medics respond to between 30 and 60 bull related injuries a year.

The tradition of running in the streets with the half a dozen bulls has been observed since the 14th century. However it has not become any safer in half a millennia.

The Herald published figures from the Pamplona Town Council and Hospital de Navarra en Pamplona, showing that the number of serious injuries were growing and New Zealanders and Australians are disproportionately involved in accidents.

Although the last death was in 2009, the number of gorings and serious injuries are trending up with increased festival attendance.

Since 2018 the New Zealand embassy to Spain has issued advice to tourists "not to run but rather to watch and enjoy the festivities."

Author Ernest Hemingway was a patron of the festival and popularised the event in his books "The Sun Also Rises" and "Death in the Afternoon."


He noted how the runners risked injury in the streets, but the bulls would face certain death in the bullring.

However, for the first time in almost a century, these executions at the hands of a toreador have been stayed. At least until next year.