When Wu Chin-yeh (吳金曄) started her training to become a hot air balloon pilot in Utah earlier this year, it was anything but easy.
“There were times when I had to deal with cattle after I was forced to land on grazing lands,” the 29-year-old Taiwanese said.
However, Wu tackled the challenges and became Taiwan’s first female hot air balloon pilot and the first person in the country to obtain both a US and a Taiwanese pilot license.
She was also the face of the recently concluded Taiwan Balloon Festival in Taitung County.
“As a Taitung native, I was thrilled to show tourists a view of my hometown from above,” she said.
The carnival, which ran from June 26 to Sept. 2, and showcased 160 exhibition flights by 21 balloons from 13 countries, was by all accounts a success.
However, Taitung County’s ambitions go far beyond organizing the popular festival. The county is hoping to position itself as a year-round “hot air balloon paradise” to add to an economy already dependent on tourism.
“We have established Taitung as the home of hot air ballooning through the festival, and the next step is to build on its success to establish a market,” said Chen Shu-hui (陳淑慧), director of the county’s Culture and Tourism Department.
Lin Wei-ling (林維玲), deputy director of the East Coast National Scenic Area, said developing this niche market is strategically important to the county’s tourist sector.
“We want specialty tourism because traditional sightseeing can no longer meet the demands of either domestic or foreign tourists,” Lin said. “To meet that goal, we need a huge market and clear rules and regulations.”
This year’s festival was a good start, drawing 850,000 visitors, more than twice the number of visitors at last year’s inaugural festival.
It generated revenues of NT$20 million (US$670,000) and helped inject NT$1.2 billion into the county’s economy, Chen said.
About 20,000 people paid NT$500 to go up in tethered hot-air balloons — which are attached to the ground and fly straight up. These rides were very popular with visitors.
“The balloons were only part of the memorable experience — there were others like counting the stars, feeling the breeze, experiencing a sort of dreamlike atmosphere,” said 26-year-old Elise Chen, who climbed into the basket of a balloon during the festival.
Twenty-seven men successfully proposed to their girlfriends during balloon flights, while thousands of Internet users posted stories about their experiences on the event’s Facebook page, according to the organizers.
Five Taitung County-sponsored Taiwanese pilots who received training in the US, including Wu, made their debut at the festival to promote hot air ballooning in the area.
However, what they were not able to do was take passengers on regular hot-air balloon rides over the Taitung countryside, even though the festival organizers had advertised such rides. Taiwan’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) only granted permits for tethered flights and non-passenger exhibition flights during the festival. This is the main hurdle Taitung faces in making hot air ballooning a regular pastime.
For the hot air balloon industry to flourish, it must be further commercialized rather than rely on government-promoted events like the festival, which means loosening existing regulations, Lin said.