RICHES BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS IN SPAIN FOR THE TAKING

Millions of crisis-hit Spaniards are snatching up tickets for the world’s richest lottery draw on Thursday, which will shower winners with a record 2.5 billion euro ($3.25 billion) in prizes.

Undeterred by a 21.5 per cent jobless rate and the prospect of recession, four out of every five Spaniards are expected to spend money on a ticket to a lottery known as “El Gordo”, or the “Fat One”.

Long queues snaked through the streets as people took a chance to dream of an escape from the economic crisis, each person buying an average of more than 60 euro worth of tickets.

In Madrid’s main artery, the Gran Via, many waited for tickets at a small kiosk.

“I am spending more than last year, 100 euros, and I am sharing the tickets with my friends and family,” said a 48-year-old office worker, Victoria.

“Some of them are having a very tough time financially and I want us to win,” she said.

A tradition that dates back nearly two centuries, “El Gordo” is an engrained Christmas ritual.

Family, friends and colleagues can play the same number and share the gains if they are lucky on December 22, when pupils from former Madrid orphanage San Ildefenso sing out the numbers on national television.

At Madrid’s Dona Manolita lottery ticket shop, which is famed for having sold the winning number several times, superstitious players are prepared to wait for hours for a ticket.

“And they say Spain is in a crisis,” a passer-by could be heard muttering as he struggled to get past the huge queue.

Spaniards’ attachment to “El Gordo” allows the national lottery to rake in a fortune each year, of which 70 per cent is shared out in prizes.

It makes the draw one of the world’s most generous, said Juan Antonio Gallardo, sales director of the national lottery.

The jackpot has grown to 400,000 euro from 300,000 euro last year.

With lottery ticket sales expected to amount to 3.6 billion euro, up from 2.7 billion euro last year, the total prize money to be shared out is expected to be 2.52 billion euro, the lottery says.

“The Christmas lottery is written into Spaniards’ DNA. No other lottery in the world sells so much,” Gallardo said.

Spaniards are paring back Christmas spending as they face a bleak economic outlook in 2012, with incoming conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy promising 16.5 billion euro in budget cuts.

“I am spending much less than last year. I am looking for practical gifts,” said 52-year-old Maria Jose Perez, with a shopping bag stuffed with pyjamas and sports shoes for her 16-year-old daughter.

According to Spain’s federation of independent consumers and users, Spanish households will spend an average 560 euro on Christmas – 114 euro less than last year.

“Consumption is fragile, frugal and tired,” said a report by the Spanish business school ESADE, which predicted a 40 per cent decline in Christmas spending.

“But we will always keep some room for the little pleasures,” said the report’s author, Gerard Costa.

“And we won’t forget traditions like the lottery.”

Spain’s outgoing Socialist government had planned to sell a 30 per cent stake in the lucrative lottery to rake in up to 7.5 billion euro for the state’s depleted coffers.

But the government abandoned the sale in September, blaming plunging markets that would have slashed the sale price.

The national lottery posted a net profit of 2.99 billion euro in 2009, up 3.5 per cent from the year before despite an economic crisis.

Spain traces its fascination with the lottery back to the creation of the royal lottery in 1763, which used profits for social causes such as hospitals. The national lottery was approved in 1811 and held its first draw the following year.