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.”
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.