January 7, 2007
Lottery Vendor Dreams of Space Tourism
SORT, Spain -- He's known across Spain for giving out loads of cash and having a sidekick who travels by broom. And soon he hopes to rack up another claim to fame: becoming a space tourist.
Lottery vendor Xavier Gabriel does carry an air of magic about him.
Perhaps it helps that his shop is in Sort, which means luck in Catalan, the language of this part of northeastern Spain.
These days he has his gaze on other lucky stars. In late 2008, Gabriel wants to soar into space as one of Virgin Galactic's first 100 space tourists.
Gabriel, 49, is a cigar-loving workaholic who launched his first successful business at age 30, starting an adventure sports company.
After buying the license to run the government-owned lottery office as a gift for his wife, Gabriel created a persona of a businessman who works hand-in-hand with the "Golden Witch" - a character he describes as coming from outer space and sprinkling luck everywhere she goes.
He has built the friendly witch into a national symbol of good luck. She appears in children's books and will soon have a cartoon series and a theme park.
"When I talk about the witch, even I don't know whether or not I'm serious. Unless you fully believe in your vision, there's no way it will be successful," Gabriel said at his modest shop in this mountain village of 1,200 people a three-hour drive from Barcelona.
When the books for 2006 are totaled up, he expects the shop to have sold $114 million worth of lottery tickets, more than 80 percent of them online, making it Spain's largest Internet business.
The other tickets are sold to busloads of hopefuls who journey from across Spain to try their luck in Sort, forming long lines snaking outside the Golden Witch office.
"I think that Spaniards, like everyone else, need to dream. Giving people the chance to dream a little is hard these days. All you hear is bad news everywhere you look. Giving people hope makes you unique," Gabriel said.
It also has made him famous. People stop him on the street to ask for a lucky number, or to rub their lottery tickets on his sleeve.
Despite Sort's aura of luckiness, statistics come into play. So many people buy their tickets in Sort that the probability of winning numbers emerging here are high.
Gabriel calculates his office has a 42 percent chance of hitting something big each year in the annual Christmas sweepstakes known as "El Gordo" ("The Fat One") or one of Spain's other big lotteries.
He himself has become a rich man because he gets a 3 percent commission for every ticket he sells, and that is helping him shoot for his own wish - a trip in space.
"We're land-bound, and can't appreciate how beautiful the Earth is. I'm really looking forward to seeing it from space, and thinking about how the planet is too beautiful to be treated so badly," he said.
Owned by Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic aims to rocket passengers 360,000 feet above Earth for a non-orbital flight featuring several minutes of weightlessness. The 2 1/2-hour trip will require three days of preflight training and cost $200,000 a person.
"The passenger program is helping to fund a new space launch system," Virgin Galactic's president, Will Whitehorn, said in a telephone interview. "It's a key part of the investment in developing a different way of getting people to space, with a new type of engine and fuel."
The company confirmed that Gabriel has paid to reserve a seat on a flight.
Gabriel hopes to blast off in late 2008, when Virgin Galactic plans to begin flying the first 100 space tourists in groups of six. Regular passenger services are scheduled to begin in 2009.
Gabriel thinks it would be nice if his flight comes up on Dec. 22, the day the big Christmas lottery is held.
"I could say that the golden witch gave me the prize to bring back from outer space," he quipped.
On the Net:
Golden Witch: http://www.labruixador.com
Virgin Galactic: http://www.virgingalactic.com