BAGAN, 26 June 2015: Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture has asked the President’s Office to halt hot-air balloon flights over the city’s fabled pagodas in case they cause damage.
The balloons fly low over the pagodas to give visitors a bird’s eye view, but there are concerns that if there is a mishap or a forced landing the balloons could cause damage to the ancient structures.
No balloon-pagoda collisions have occurred, at least during the past 10 years, local hoteliers and tour operators report, but the ministry is adamant that they are a potential risk.
Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library deputy general director, U Thein Lwin, told the Myanmar Times that the bud-like ornament on top of the pagoda’s spire could be damaged by a balloon flying low, as customers sometimes request to take photographs.
Hot air balloon pilots say it would be difficult to clip the small ornaments on the pagodas.
Ministry of Hotels and Tourism director, U Myo Win Nyunt, said his ministry was having discussions with the Ministry of Culture, the Department of Civil Aviation and ballooning companies over possible regulation of the airspace above the pagodas.
“The compliance of ballooning companies to adopt an appropriate flight path would be a requirement to obtain a licence, once the rules have been set out. The regulations will be announced before the high season.”
The new rules will impact on three companies: Balloons Over Bagan, which has been operating flights in Bagan, since 1999; Oriental Ballooning, which launched in late 2013; and Golden Eagle Ballooning, which began flights in November last year, the report said.
Curtailing the balloon rides would be a major blow to the local tourism industry, as balloon flights are a popular activity.
The ban reflects a higher level of assertiveness by Ministry of Culture to protect ancient heritage sites.
It also took action against hotels built illegally within the ancient city and temple complex. However, the balloons are not widely perceived as a threat to ancient structures. Land transport is a more critical factor. Bus traffic has already compromised the foundations of historical gates through vibration. As tourism increases traffic and air pollution will have a much more harmful impact on pagodas than low-flying balloons in the long-run.
Critics would claim with a degree of cynicism that the move against the balloons is either politically or commercially motivated.
Bagan is an ancient city located in Mandalay Region and is now one of the main attractions for visitors.
The Bagan historical area spans about 42 sq km (16 miles) and is peppered with more than 3,000 temples, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, when some 55 Buddhist kings ruled the Bagan Dynasty.
The government has taken steps to nominate Bagan as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and officials within the organisation have predicted that it will be added to the roster within the next few years.
According to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, the region is home to 144 hotels, motels and inns with nearly 6,000 rooms.