Hot air balloons may not immediately drift into mind when recalling Chinese history but these giants of the sky owe their origin in part to the gifted Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮), also known as the Crouching Dragon (臥龍), who employed the first airborne lanterns to convey military messages as long ago as 220 AD.
It was military planning, meanwhile, that ensured recreational hot air-ballooning never took off in post-war Taiwan during the heightened atmosphere of militarism that underpinned the Martial Law era.
However, organizers of the Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta — now in its third year — are hoping that the dark clouds of the past may have finally parted and that rural Taitung County can become an international ballooning venue, lifting the fortunes of the impoverished eastern region with it.
Not just Hot air
“In the past national security was always the first priority,” explains Taitung County Commissioner Justin Huang (黃健庭). “Ballooning outside of Taiwan has been done for years — Japan, Australia, the UK, for example — but if Taiwanese wanted to experience balloons in the past they had to go abroad.”
The ambitious, youthful county chief pulls no punches as he describes the power of a humble air-filled nylon sack to potentially elevate Taitung into a go-to location for globe-trotting balloon enthusiasts and to firmly place the county on the list of high-end tourism destinations.
While Huang concedes that most of the visitors to the two-and-a-half month long event which runs this year from June 1 to August 11 are from Taiwan, the aim is now to branch out to international audiences.
“International guests were a small percentage of the near-one million people who visited last year, but I want Taitung to be a more international location and that’s the tourism industry we are trying to build.”
Huang is talking big and local government figures indicate that the 880,000 people who visited the ballooning bonanza last year spent up to NT$200 million in the region. However, the festival started small and finally took off in 2011 after the brainchild of Taitung Culture and Tourism Department officials was submitted to Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs.
“We didn’t know that much about hot air balloons but we said, ‘What the hell — give it a try, what other international event can we possibly host in Taitung?’ Then we won first prize!” Huang said.
A NT$8 million grant provided the county with the financial support needed to pull off the first event and tourism bureaucrats were then reportedly amazed by the 350,000 people who attended. “We were pretty shocked by that,” says an enthusiastic Huang. “I said to the now Vice Premier Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) after the first balloon festival, ‘I don’t just want an event, I want an industry, I want a ballooning industry in Taiwan.’”
Huang may now be regretting his words as the recent announcements by Greater Kaohsiung and Hualien County that they intend to host rival ballooning events indicate that the nation is indeed nurturing a fledging ballooning industry.
“You don’t need every city doing the same thing,” says Huang. “But I look at it positively,” he added. “I said to my staff, ‘They can try to do that, and we have no way of stopping them so all we want to do is to do it better than them ... This year we’re going to be staging free-flying and no one else can do that because they don’t have their own balloons or pilots.”