Free-flights — as opposed to a simple minutes-long jaunt in a balloon tethered to the ground — allowing the public to drift along the thermals which breeze through the scenic Eastern Rift Valley are one of a series of firsts for this year’s event which takes place in the tea-growing area in Luye Township (鹿野). The event will also host Taiwan’s first branded balloons, which will be piloted by Taiwanese hot air balloon pilots, including the country’s first female pilot.
Nevertheless, while the hot air balloon remains humanity’s oldest flying technology, the price tag for a free flight — currently estimated at NT$8,000 per person — ensures that very few will get to be the first to travel in this traditional way.
Even if the price tag may deter many the crowds are set to be large and the county is taking measures to bolster transportation links as well as encouraging more accommodation to come on-line.
“We need to improve infrastructure, that’s for sure,” concedes Huang.
“Luye is an agricultural township so the roads have not been designed for major events like this … We’re trying our best to see what we can do, I’m sure we cannot solve the problems 100 percent right away but — in my mind — eventually I want this [event] to become a global standard.”
However, for Huang, the problems associated with the vast numbers of visitors represent a unique opportunity for a region that has traditionally been a major exporter of people and talent. “[There were] some lodging and accommodation problems but that’s a good problem and because of that there are now more companies that are willing to come to Taitung and to invest and to build and that is exactly what we need … The balloon fest has really changed Taitung, it’s amazing … In the past Taitung did not have job opportunities and our total population was decreasing … and that is why — in my mind — the most beautiful part of the country was also the poorest.”
For Huang it is the aesthetics of ballooning that holds a special appeal and one that he feels much of the public shares. “When the balloon is inflated it’s very charming and when you combine that with the crowds and our scenery, our mountains it’s just beautiful.”
For 31-year-old Taitung native and Taiwan’s first female pilot Jessica Wu (吳金曄), the freedom of flying remains a powerful draw. “I feel like I am a bird and I can go anywhere … The world is so big and I am so small.”
One of a batch of pilots who traveled to the US to obtain a hot air balloon pilot’s license, Wu is set to fly a series of free flights during the event.
The desire to fly has compelled humanity to great folly and it has been argued that while people were always intrigued by the airborne skills of their feathered friends, there was also a wish to be closer to the heavens. These devout compulsions may still drive some and for Huang it has great resonance.
“My wife said to me, ‘This is the grace of God’ and I think it’s true,” says Huang, shrugging his shoulders. “[The balloon festival] came out of nowhere and all of a sudden it becomes the most popular event in Taiwan.”
The heavens will certainly help to decide if Taitung gets the favorable weather the event needs for further success, but keeping this cash-strapped county on course for economic regeneration will call for bright skies for some time to come.