Sri Lankans, set to take a hot-air balloon ride over Sigiriya during the second phase of a festival backed by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, have been asked to step down by the organisers but foreign tourists have been allowed the ride.
The Sunday Times learns that the organisers have been told by the Tourism Ministry to refund the Rs.10,000 per head ticket to the locals after a near-miss incident over Yala earlier in the week when army officers nearly shot down one of the balloons because they had not been informed of the event.
Capt. Anil Jayasinghe, one of the organisers of the festival, confirmed that money paid by the locals had been refunded keeping with a security requirement, but declined to elaborate.
The balloon festival was organized by the Ceylon Airship & Balloon Club along with the Ministry of Tourism and is being held from March 21 to April 4 with the first phase concluding on Friday in Tissamaharamaya. Earlier, a group of journalists who went on a balloon ride during the first phase of the balloon festival came very near to being shot down when their balloon strayed towards an army camp near the Yala National Park.
Organizers said they had obtained permission from the authorities for the event but troops on the ground said they had not been informed about it and that had nearly caused a major tragedy. Tourist Board Marketing Director Dilip Mudadeniya said permission had been obtained from Air Force and Civil Aviation authorities but the direction of the wind had carried the balloon towards the army camp.
He said 12 people, including the British operator, had been in the balloon, which had taken off from the Deberawewa Maha Vidyalaya in Tissamaharama around 7 a.m. on Wednesday and landed a kilometre away from the Palatupana army camp around 8.45 a.m.
The journalists and others stayed in the balloon for sometime until park rangers and a cattle herder saw them and escorted them to the army camp. There, they learnt the horrific truth that the military personnel on the grounds had seen the balloon and obtained permission to shoot it down if it proceeded further.
When they were stuck in the Yala jungles, frantic efforts were made to establish contact with the operations centre at the takeoff site but most of the mobile phones did not work and with radio contact also lost, there was panic.
The group also sighted three elephants in the vicinity but due to the sound of the air pressure as the balloon descended, they had fled in fright. The story had a happy ending as soldiers had held fire long enough for the balloon to land and for the military personnel to identify those on board.