The Kraków Balloon: From Mistrust To Great Storytelling

Looking from an outsider's perspective, you'd probably imagine that adding a tourist attraction like a tethered balloon (capable of taking visitors as high up as 300m!) in a historical city like Kraków, would most likely make a lot of people happy, offering them an opportunity to enjoy unparalleled city views. Not just any city, mind you, but one of the oldest UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world, inscribed on the UNESCO list as early as 1978. But you would be wrong!
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Only in a narrow sense would your optimism be well grounded, as "a lot of smiling people" (tourists, families, kids, adventure-hungry locals and international visitors) is what you will most likely see for yourself, if you literally go out there and look at the faces of just about everyone who has either already enjoyed a balloon ride, minutes before sunset, or is queuing to do so.

The Kraków Effect

In Kraków, however, things are rarely as simple as that, especially in the eyes of the general public, whose sentiments can be swayed, depending on the verdict of local activists and the select few journalists, gullible or malicious enough not to see the bigger picture, the overall positive-impact potential, least of all the possibility of genuinely good intentions behind a particular initiative. Instead, they will likely rush to portray you as a greedy capitalist, always ready to creatively bypass city regulations for personal gain and, in the process, tarnish the historical city landscape with yet another eyesore. 

Forget the fact that any such argument is simply foolish in this case, given that this particular "eyesore" is temporary (by definition) and the only view it blocks is the biggest (abandoned) former hotel in the city, i.e. a factual eyesore. Ironically enough, the very same activists don't seem to mind its long-term aesthetic impact, not to mention the fact that it has long served as the biggest and quite possibly the most expensive advertising space in the city (see photo below). 

In other words, if your particular project proposal (and its final implementation) are not to the activists' liking, they might just go to great lengths to make sure everyone's focus is on the downsides, the controversies and the negatives of whatever it is you want to contribute to the city landscape, above all else.


The balloon and Kraków's untapped creative-storytelling potential 

I happen to live only a few hundred metres away from where the balloon has been put in place, which is, as mentioned earlier, right next to one of the city's biggest former hotels (closed down and left as it is, for over a quarter of a century!). Over the years, I have watched from up close how this part of the city has evolved and it is only now that serious plans are being envisioned, drafted and put before the municipal authorities to breathe new life into this part of the city and, in the process, help relieve the city centre from the increasingly probable impact of overtourism.

Needless to say, the more points of interest a city like Kraków is likely to add to its list of favourites and the more diverse and geographically dispersed they are, the more balanced and sustainable the city's overall growth. Hence, the same activists, keen to put the 'looks of the city' so high on their agenda, might be better advised (or simply less hypocritical) to focus their scathing attention on so many other worthy challengers, i.e. real (as opposed to imaginary) architecture eyesore, like what is left of the former Hotel Forum. Come on, guys, be honest with yourselves first, and only then try to persuade the world around you to share your views. 

Spotting an opportunity where no one else would

One of the reasons behind Hotel Forum's persistent status quo may have something to do with the fact that some of its abandoned ground-floor spaces have since turned into one of the most fashionable pubs/clubs in town. It's called Forum Przestrzenie and it's much more than your perfect summer-chill-out venue (with 73,000 'Likes' on Facebook!). Over the years, it has grown to be more of a cultural institution, organising dozens of concerts, exhibitions, film screenings and sport events, to mention only a few categories. It's also the site of one of the city's most fashionable fair called Kiermash.

A balloon COULD BE so much more, if only...

At first sight, a project like a tethered balloon is just that: a tourist attraction that takes hundreds of tourists from around the world up and down, all day long, day in, day out. Or, it can evolve to rise beyond simple categorisations and definitions to become a meaningful part of the city's international storytelling agenda. Given its truly mesmerising 360-degree perspective on one of the world's first UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Kraków was inscribed as early as 1978), it's hardly surprising that the number of photos taken by those who simply cannot resist to "reach up to the skies" with it, already runs in hundreds of thousands, even though the balloon has been made available to tourists only a few months ago. 

A personal touch

On the day when the balloon was being inflated (quite literally), I bumped into the man behind this project. His name is Marek Kufel. We really enjoyed our very first, spontaneous small talk that sunny afternoon, to the extent that when we met again, a few days later, we had a much longer conversation about his dream project, which was to become fully operational in the following few weeks. From our very first conversation I felt he was very passionate when talking about his dream, where it could take him and where he hoped to take it. We had a great chat about the history of balloon flights in Poland (especially in Kraków), which prompted me to do some more research and look at the potential storytelling-, educational and awareness-raising angles for a project like his, which is the only area where he didn't seem to have plans in proportion to the opportunities his dream achievement offered. I soon discovered that from a purely creative (and, in a sense, strategic perspective) an initiative like this has a great storytelling potential. Far too interesting to waste.

And so, quite expectedly, in the days and weeks that followed, I was happy to share my thinking with Marek and his partners and have since come to believe that, if implemented, the Kraków Balloon project, has every chance to become a fascinating case study for a lot more than just a successful, money-making tourist attraction. After all, it's also a business project for Marek and his team, and there is absolutely no shame in that. Even if it were to be only a tourist attraction and little else, here's what you get:

The Balloon and Kraków's strategic storytelling

I am happy to share a few of the ideas I have shared with Marek and his business partners over the past few months. In the end, I hope the list of innovations and creative initiatives they will implement in the near future will include the following (at least):

  1. A powerful air-quality measurement lab (with data made available to city officials, researchers and activists) and a public-information platform (a simple colour-coded system for air quality, to start with)
  2. An important charity project (just imagine the fun children with disabilities would have if a systemic free-of-charge solution was to be offered to relevant schools, hospitals and centres, at least every now and then).
  3. An educational project offering unique content (imagine city authorities being able to explain important urban-development plans and goals "live" to investors, guests, strategic partners, looking at the city from above, putting things in perspective and having a little fun in the process. What's the harm in that?),
  4. Promote the history of balloon flights and the accompanying scientific progress. The story itself is absolutely fascinating. 

And so, the list of creative and strategic opportunities at hand just goes on and on. In the long run, I truly hope this project proves all the nay-sayers wrong and creates a positive impact on the city in ways that were not even thought of or imagined possible at first

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