By Lee Hsin-yin, CNA staff reporter
When Wu Jin-ye took up hot-air ballooning for the first time in a training program in Utah earlier this year, it was anything but a breeze and not something that endeared her to animals in the western state.
"There were times during those courses when I had to deal with cattle after I made forced landings on grazing lands," recalls the 29-year-old Taiwanese.
Wu survived the challenges, however, to become Taiwan's first female hot air balloon pilot and the first person in the country to obtain both a U.S. and a Taiwanese pilot license.
She was also the face of the recently concluded Taiwan Balloon Festival in Taitung County in southeastern Taiwan.
"As a Taitung native, I was thrilled to introduce my hometown from the air to tourists," she says.
The marathon-style 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.
But Taitung County's ambitions go beyond holding the popular festival. With the help of domestic pilots like Wu, the county is hoping to position itself as a year-round "hot air balloon paradise" to add a spark to an economy already dependent on tourism.
"We have established Taitung as the home for hot air ballooning through the festival, and the next step is to build on its success to establish a market," said Chen Shu-hui, director of the county's Culture and Tourism Department.
Lin Wei-ling, deputy director of the East Coast National Scenic Area, said developing the niche is strategically important to the sector.
"We want specialty tourism because traditional sightseeing can no longer meet the demands of either domestic or foreign tourists," Lin said. "But to meet that goal, we need a huge market and clear rules of the game."
This year's festival was a good start, drawing 850,000 visitors, more than two times the number at the inaugural festival in 2011.
It earned revenues of NT$20 million (US$670,000) and helped inject NT$1.2 billion into the county's economy, Chen said.
Nearly 20,000 people paid NT$500 to go up in tethered hot-air balloons -- which are attached to the ground and fly straight up -- and the rides really resonated with visitors.
"The balloons were only part of the memorable experience -- there were others like counting the stars, feeling the breeze, that sort of dreamlike atmosphere," said 26-year-old Elise Chen, who climbed onto a balloon at dawn after four hours of waiting on a windy August morning.
Also, 27 men successfully proposed to their girlfriends on the balloons, 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 U.S., including Wu, also had the chance to make their debut at the festival to promote hot air ballooning in the area.
What they were not able to do, however, was taking passengers on normal hot-air balloon rides floating over the Taitung countryside, even though such rides had been advertised before the festival at NT$8,000 per person.
The reason? Event organizers only got permits for tethered flights and non-passenger exhibition flights for the festival from Taiwan's aviation regulator, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), highlighting the main hurdle Taitung faces in making hot-air ballooning a regular pastime.
For the tourism niche to take off and flourish, it must be further commercialized rather than rely on government-promoted events like the festival, Lin said, and that means loosening existing regulations.
"We want the (CAA) to reserve for us an open sky on a year-round basis with fewer restrictions," said the county's Chen Shu-hui.
Hsiung Shih-ping, an official with the CAA's Planning, Legal and International Affairs Division, called the idea feasible.
"It's possible that we open an 18-kilometer-long air corridor along the Rift Valley as long as all the balloons get standard communications equipment," she said, but cautioned that other adjustments will also be necessary to avoid overcrowding air lanes in the region.
Most importantly, for hot-air ballooning to be classified in Taiwan as a general aviation business that can conduct legal tours and serve passengers, a more detailed regulatory framework for the activity needs to be finalized.
Other issues also have to be resolved, such as building infrastructure and training local pilots, challenges the Tourism Bureau and Taitung County are tackling together.
A NT$101 million pilot training school, for example, is being planned on the site of an abandoned elementary school, where the country's first group of licensed pilots will be expected to train others.
"We want to cultivate our own pilots to make the industry truly sustainable," said Wu Chih-wei, a trained pilot who is expected to take charge of the school's future operation.
Suitable takeoff and landing spots also have to be identified, which may require the county to negotiate with farmers over use of fallow land.
He stressed that aggressive initiatives from the public sector would help boost private interest in investing in related businesses, such as sports insurance and dealership and expedite the development of necessary services.
The county's long-term goal, Wu said, is to promote year-round hot-air ballooning, weather permitting, and make the festival competitive with Japan's Saga International Balloon Fiesta, the world's second largest ballooning carnival that hosts over 100 balloons every year.
For now, progress is being made on the regulatory front. Keng Hwa, a section chief from the CAA's Flight Standards Division, said a complete regulatory standard will likely be established by the end of this year to create favorable conditions for commercial passenger ballooning.
"We have already amended nine relative regulations to qualify the balloons as civilian aircraft, such as airplanes and helicopters," Keng said.
That's good news to new ballooning fans like Elise Chen, who said her one ride in the tethered hot-air balloon was simply not enough.
"The excitement of traveling on a hot air balloon lies in that you can fly all the way into a sky of unknown wonders," she said.
"To me, that is the Taiwanese version of Disneyland."