More than just hot air

Hualien is following in the footsteps of Taitung and Tainan in introducing hot air ballooning as a spur to tourism

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

Wed, Mar 27, 2013 - Page 12

On March 23, Hualien sent up its first hot air balloon as part of a test run for what the local government hopes will become a regular part of its tourism activities. This landmark event for the county comes close on the heels of a hot air balloon disaster in Egypt that killed 19 people, and the first ever participation of a hot air balloon from Taiwan in an international event, the flying of Taitung No. 1 (台東一號) at the Canberra Balloon Spectacular in Australia.

According to Su Yi-shun (蘇意舜), head of the Tourism and Public Affairs Department (觀光暨公共事務處), Hualien County, a number of trials with hot air balloons will be held over the next three months as a preparation for the inclusion of a hot air balloon event as part of wide-ranging activities planned for the summer vacation period.

Taiwan’s east coast region, especially the rift valley, with its wide expanses of unobstructed open space and spectacular scenery, is particularly suitable for aerial sports. Activities such as paragliding have already begun to take off, but the commercial potential of hot air balloons, with their ability to carry passengers, is considerably greater. Those who wish to glide through the sky on gossamer wings will be able to do so in comfort, without the necessity of either complex equipment or technical knowledge, as passengers on a hot air balloon.

The Hualien County Government has brought in Frank Wechter of Cameron Balloons of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was also involved with the Taitung County Government’s establishment of the Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta (臺灣國際熱氣球嘉年華) in 2001. Speaking at the launching ground at Hualien’s Danong Dafu Forest Park (大農大富平地森林園區) in Hualien’s Guangfu Township (光復鄉) on the opening day of the trials last week, Wechter said that early morning trials saw almost 100 VIPs taken up into the air, but at the official launch in the afternoon, the two balloons only made three ascents due to unstable air currents.

Wechter, who has 37 years experience with hot air balloons and has helped introduce the sport to many countries around the world, said that ensuring safety had been the first and foremost concern. Benedict Savio of Global Media Box, who provided the balloons, and was at the launch site with Wechter, said that all the equipment had been inspected by officials of Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (民用航空局). The balloons themselves are hugely impressive, and according to Wechter, the ones used in Hualien, which hold three passengers and a pilot, stand as high as an eight-story building.

Wechter added that the key factor in the successful introduction of hot air ballooning to a new country was in training pilots and ground crews. This conviction was supported by Chen Shu-hui (陳淑慧), head of the Tourism Department (觀光旅遊處) of the Taitung County Government in a telephone interview with Taipei Times. She said that the county currently had five trained pilots, but only two with commercial (as opposed to recreational) level licenses, adding that the government is currently subsidizing students to travel overseas to obtain the necessary qualifications for piloting hot air balloons on a commercial basis.

Chen said that the Taitung County government is taking things slowly in regard to the commercialization of hot air ballooning, and has thus far restricted commercial use of the balloons to tethered ascents that are just a foretaste of the diversity of ballooning as an adventure sport.

“Although we have licensed pilots, we believe that experience is still a crucial issue,” she said, adding, in reference to the recent ballooning tragedy in Egypt, that this sort of incident served as an important lesson in how seriously safety issues in ballooning must be taken.

Chen said that Taitung had thought of introducing ballooning as a great way of vitalizing a wide range of businesses related to the tourism industry. “Taitung seems made for hot air ballooning. There are few airplanes or other obstructions here. But it was not as easy as we thought,” she said, referring to the complex regulatory system that needs to be put in place and the negotiations to obtain the balloons and pilots. As for the need to have pilots and crews if ballooning is to become established in Taitung, she has hopes that Taitung will be able to establish its own training facility in the near future. Currently ballooning certifications need to be obtained overseas.

Taitung has proved that hot air ballooning has enormous potential, and in 2012, only its second year, the Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta drew a crowd of 880,000. Of these, Wechter estimated that 20,000 got into the sky. “In the US or Australia, people might turn up their noses at tethered ascents,” he said, “but the experience is so new here, it quickly become one of the most popular events for Taitung tourism.” Last year, Tainan also had great success with a hot air balloon activity, drawing significant crowds.

“It is an adventure. You are close to the sky in a way that you cannot be in an airplane or a helicopter,” Savio said. There is also a social dimension. “It is something you can do together with friends. After the flight you might relax with drinks or a meal,” Wechter added.

With an eye to the proven success of ballooning in Taitung and Tainan, Hualien will be holding trials over the next three months, and if all goes according to plan, tethered ascents will be open to the public in June. According to Chen in Taitung, with two years of experience behind them, the Taiwan International Balloon Fiesta in June is aiming to introduce its first commercial free flights, taking ballooning in Taiwan to a whole new level.