Albuquerque aims to save spirit of annual balloon fiesta

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Fall in Albuquerque just isn’t fall without the annual international hot air balloon fiesta, with its massive morning ascensions filling the skies with colorful balloons from around the globe as spectators watch from the packed launch field below.

Organizers had to cancel this year’s event due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday he wants to keep the tradition alive for residents by inviting local pilots to lift off from city parks, golf courses and other open spaces during the week of Oct. 3-11.

Spectators won't be allowed at the launch sites due to restrictions mandated by the state's public health order, but officials said balloons still will be visible from around the city once they launch.

Keller said the question was how Albuquerque could maintain its traditions despite the limits that COVID-19 has placed on social interactions and large gatherings like the balloon fiesta. He pointed to the city's Fourth of July celebration, saying the dispersed fireworks displays at different spots around town served as a model for how the city could keep the spirit of the balloon fiesta alive with smaller scale launches.

“This is going to be a great thing for our city,” he said during a news conference at Balloon Fiesta Park. “I think it's also a reflection of the fact that we are the hot air balloon capitol of the world and we want to make sure that's the case even during a pandemic. This is really something we can deliver.”

The city is setting up a website where pilots can register. Officials said they already have interest from several dozens pilots and more are signing up every day.

Balloons will be widely spaced when preparing to launch, and balloon crews will be limited to five people. Albuquerque police also plan to patrol to ensure traffic is smooth and that people are observing social distancing and mask requirements.

Specific locations for launch sites will be announced in the coming weeks. Balloon Fiesta Park still will be on the list as it represents the largest patch of manicured grass in central New Mexico. Parks on the northeast and west sides of the city also will be used.

Despite the small launches being planned by the city, the cancelation of this year's fiesta is expected to have economic consequences. In 2019, the event drew nearly 600 balloons from across the nation and 17 foreign countries, attracted more than 866,000 visitors over nine days and generated an estimated economic impact on the Albuquerque area of more than $186 million and $6.5 million in tax revenues for the state.