Appropriations in the air: hot-air ballooning and changing tourism relationships

Hazel Tucker

Hazel Tucker

Associate Professor, Department of Tourism, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand


In tourism promotions of Cappadocia in recent years, this region in central Turkey has become synonymous with hot-air ballooning. The recently developed tourist practice in the region has grown to the point that ballooning is now considered by tourists to be necessary in order to experience Cappadocia properly. This paper begins by considering how this appropriation of the tourist imagination is linked to the privileging of visuality in tourism. Furthermore, the paper asks how this changing tourism practice in Cappadocia affects how tourists and local people consider themselves and their relationships to each other.  The paper addresses this question by looking at the ways in which hot-air ballooning has led to tourism’s and tourists’ new appropriation of various spaces, both physically and economically. The paper is based on my long term involvement and ethnographic research in Cappadocia.

The Cappadocia region is set amongst a landscape of giant rock cones with historic Byzantine cave dwellings and churches carved into them, and also contemporary villages and townships where many people still live in cave-houses and where tourists, also today, can stay in converted ‘cave-houses’. In the mid-1980s, certain ‘Open-Air Museums’ in the region were given UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the Göreme area and surrounding valleys were afforded National Park status. Mass tourism first developed during the late 1980s, particularly around the World Heritage Site and National Park areas. The main focus of the so-called ‘cultural tourism’ development in the region from its beginning was the Byzantine cave churches and monasteries that remain scattered throughout the valleys but are particularly concentrated in the area of the Göreme Open-Air Museum. However, also of tourist interest is the “moonlike” landscape of giant rock cones locally called “fairy-chimneys”. There are numerous valleys filled with fairy-chimneys in Cappadocia and, during the 1990s, walking the valleys’ many paths became a common activity of the ever-increasing number of independent tourists (those with the time and freedom to walk) visiting the region.

At end of the 1990s a new way of experiencing the more remote parts of the valleys became available, through the activity of hot-air ballooning. A couple from northern Europe set up a hot-air ballooning operation in Göreme township at that time and developed ballooning as an exclusive (pricey) tourist activity to partake in. The couple marketed ballooning in Cappadocia hard, regularly attending international tourism trade fairs and frequently inviting international media to take a balloon flight with them. By the end of the 1990s their ballooning activity was in all the Cappadocia guide books and Turkey’s national tourism board also used images of ballooning over the Cappadocia landscape in its international promotional campaigns, thus making tourism in Cappadocia, and even to some extent tourism in Turkey, synonymous with hot-air ballooning amongst the Cappadocia landscape. Over the past ten years, the initial ballooning company has hence grown into a large and highly successful business. In addition, seven other ballooning operations have been set up in the region. For most of the summer season now, there are between thirty and forty hot-air balloons flying each morning over the central Cappadocia (Göreme) region.      

This paper considers the processes of spatial and economic appropriation developing with this new form of tourism practice in Cappadocia. The discussion will begin by looking at issues of symbolic and visual appropriation in the rapid catching-on of hot-air ballooning as a ‘must-do’ activity in the tourist imagination.

Appropriation of the tourist imagination

As mentioned above, the Cappadocia region has become synonymous with hot-air ballooning to the point that ballooning is now considered necessary in order to experience Cappadocia properly. Balloon flying has become a ‘must-do’ activity on tourists’ itineraries. I was recently on a package coach tour from the Turkish south coast to Cappadocia. As we entered the region the guide on the coach promoted the opportunity to go ballooning the following morning at sunrise. I overheard the woman sitting behind me telling her friend that she would go ballooning if only she didn’t have young children (she perceived ballooning as a life-risking activity). At breakfast time in the hotel the next morning, however, when all the balloonists in the party were back and raving about how spectacular it had been, I greeted that same woman and asked how she was: She replied that she was fine but that she’d be a hundred times better if she’d gone ballooning after all. Realising now that her fears for her life had been mis-placed, her regret about not going was strong. She’d missed out on an “unmissable” experience and had therefore not had a maximum experience of Cappadocia and was also, consequently, a less-worthy tourist, perhaps even a less-worthy person, than those in the party who had gone ballooning that morning.

The reliable weather conditions in this part of central Anatolia mean that it is almost guaranteed that a balloon flight will be available to any tourist visiting the area, however short their stay. Therefore the only thing preventing individual tourists from ballooning (apart from fear of the risks involved or, more commonly, a fear of heights) is usually their financial ability to pay for the experience. However, cheaper options are now available, as some ballooning companies have begun to fit two shorter flights into the time-space available in the early morning (before winds become too strong). Such flights offer tourists a quick ride in a balloon which may consequently end up being more over scrub-land than “fairy-chimney”-filled valleys. This has resulted in two different, but overlapping, levels on which ballooning is a must-do on tourists’ itineraries. One level is high-end and exclusive. The full flight, taken with the original company, is the most expensive available and thus caters to the wealthier tourist and / or to the more discerning tourist. These balloon flights are always in smaller balloon baskets, holding approximately 8-10 passengers, so that all passengers are able to stand beside the rim of the basket for optimum viewing and photography. The shorter cheaper flights available from other companies are likely to be in bigger baskets with as many as 35 other passengers. Viewing over the basket rim is therefore more difficult; furthermore, the fact that the flight is shorter means it is less guaranteed to float over the ‘best’ parts of the landscape. For these passengers, ballooning in Cappadocia might be more something that needs to be ‘ticked off the list’ of tourist activities.

Of course, hierarchies of tourists and tourist experiences, or ‘gazes’, have long been formed in both the popular and the academic imagination. One example is found in Taylor’s (1994) analysis of tourist landscape photography, where he distinguishes ‘travellers’ (who gaze contemplatively upon their surroundings) from ‘tourists’ (who accumulate shallow glances) and from ‘trippers’ (who see everything in blinks and blurs). Another prominent example is Urry’s distinction between the romantic gaze and the collective gaze (1990; 2002). The concept of hot-air ballooning produces the romantic gaze, since the gentle floating amongst the “fairy-chimneys” of Cappadocia in a hot-air balloon is certainly choreographed to provide the opportunity to gaze contemplatively, and romantically, upon the landscape. At least this was the original way in which it became ‘distinguished’ as a tourist activity. Now, however, since there are many balloons flying, and some with very large baskets, the romantic gaze is not necessarily achieved. Ballooning per se no longer gives tourists immediate access to the privileged romantic gaze, but ballooning with certain companies, those known as the better ones, will.

The short anecdote above about the woman missing out on ballooning reminds us of the arguments regarding tourism’s seduction process, or, as Baudrillard termed it, tourism’s “strategies of desire”, which consist of signs through which the value of products are conveyed in order to mobilise consumer interest and provoke a sense of “need” (1981: 85). This is the idea that people are enticed to go to certain places and to do certain things there through the ‘tourism industry’ and the complex of media that surrounds it. As described above, from the late 1990s onwards, images of ballooning amongst the Cappadocia landscape were shown in Turkey’s international tourism promotion campaigns. Increasingly, also, ballooning there has featured in newspaper and magazine articles as well as television tourism and documentary programmes internationally, the most famous of these to date being Michael Palin’s recent New Europe series. As Couldry argues, “media representations of the social world make certain places more important, reconfiguring the landscape within which tourism occurs” (2005: 60). Part of the ‘magic of mediated place’ (ibid.) is that by being widely represented in media, it is endowed with social significance and value.

‘Mediated place’ is thus said to involve a sort of hermeneutic circle, whereby tourists seek a set of images that they have already seen in brochures or on TV (Selwyn 1996; Urry 2002). Tourists then endeavour to capture those same images for themselves, so that they are then able to demonstrate that they have really been there. This process reflects and reproduces not only the point that, as Urry argues, “photography gives shape to travel”, but also the way in which Western occulocentricism is itself central to much tourist practice (2002: 129).  Urry suggests further that “the general privileging of the eye within the long history of Western societies” means that sight “is viewed as the noblest of the senses, the most discriminating and reliable of the sensuous mediators between humans and their physical environment” (ibid: 146). In this context, ballooning is privileged in the tourist imagination because it is an activity which seemingly offers, above all else, visual consumption, but also because it permits a new way of seeing and a particularly exclusive / romantic way of seeing. Other ways of being a tourist in the Cappadocia valleys which are not so overtly visual, such as clambering amongst the rock cones or having a picnic, are not so privileged. Furthermore, with its popularity being so heavily based on visuality, the balloon flights tend to be choreographed entirely to offer visual consumption of the landscape. For this reason, it is pertinent to consider what the implications are of this new form of visual appropriation.

Visual appropriation of the landscape

MacCannell’s The Tourist (1976) and Urry’s The Tourist Gaze (1990) were the key works to instigate the study of the visual in tourism. MacCannell argued that tourists travel in order to collect images, and Urry argued that images and ‘the gaze’ play a crucial role in structuring tourist expectations and experiences. This in turn relates to the previous section above and the gaze’s power to appropriate and structure the tourist imagination. Moreover, Urry (1990; 2002) argued that gazing lends power to the tourist in relation to the landscape, the place and the culture being gazed upon by virtue of the objectifying and distancing character of the gaze: “It facilitiates the world of the ‘other’ to be controlled from afar, combining detachment and mastery. It is by seeking distance that a proper ‘view’ is gained” (Urry 2002: 147). Indeed, the higher one goes up in the balloon, the bigger the view of Cappadocia one has, a view that is no longer cluttered by being down there amongst the fairy-chimneys. Most pilots vary the height at which the balloon is flying throughout the flight, as well as varying the types of landscape over which it is flying, in order to allow passengers to view and take photographs of a wide variety of valley-views, fairy-chimney views, as well as village views, vineyards and orchards.

The idea of visual consumption thus extends to appropriation here. Indeed, Lash and Urry argue that “tourism presupposes the exchange of finance for temporary visual property which visitors can acquire when they have temporary rights of possession of places away from home” (Lash and Urry 1994: 271). In this sense, tourists buying a hot-air balloon flight acquire temporary rights to visually appropriate the landscape in ways which are otherwise not possible. Moreover, balloon flights are choreographed specifically to provide opportunities to photograph the landscape, and, as has been widely discussed in the literature on the sociology of photography, “to photograph is in some way to appropriate the object being photographed” (Urry 2002: 127).

Moreover, whilst ballooning in Cappadocia, particularly when flying over villages and townships, tourists are also able to look into and photograph private courtyards and upper-storey windows that were previously inaccessible to the tourist gaze. This has implications for villagers in the region as well as tourists not in a balloon that morning. A hotel owner told me that everything was alright a few years ago when there were just one or two balloons flying in the area, but now, with over thirty, it is a regular occurrence that he or his guests wake up with balloon passengers looking through their upper storey room window first thing in the morning. Similarly, villagers’ privacy can be compromised by balloon passengers being able to look down into courtyards that are otherwise secluded behind a high wall (in this Islamic society, houses are built with walled courtyards largely to protect the honour of the women inside). Tourists, and balloon pilots, are now appropriating that space visually and also through the practice of photography that is associated with being in the balloon. I myself usually think twice about, and try to attain permission before, taking photographs of ‘private’ spaces in villages when I am ‘on the ground’, for example, through an opened gate or doorway. Yet, when I am in a hot-air balloon I constantly click my camera with very little regard for the ethical implications of what I am doing, perhaps because of the particular ‘right’ that I feel I have as a balloon passenger, since that is what ballooning, as a tourist at least, is all about. Compounding this is the feeling of distancing that occurs when flying over rather than being down there amongst the villages and the valleys.

Furthermore, ballooning is set up, promoted and privileged around visuality and visuality is a sense which fully engages the body. As Jokinen and Veijola point out, “visuality, of all the senses, is the most embodied one: what we see depends on our posture and position. In contrast, we can smell, touch and taste the same things in various positions” (2003: 251). On the one hand, this point means that the privilege of gazing (and photographing) from the balloon basket can always be disrupted; if the basket is facing the wrong way so that you are on the wrong side to get that good photo, then you will be disappointed. Likewise, the tourist in the basket with thirty other people will not be able to see much more than sky for the parts of the flight when they are standing in the middle sections. Importantly, though, because visuality is an embodied sense also, the process of tourist and tourism appropriation in this context is never entirely visual. Hot-air ballooning is a new form of embodied appropriation in Cappadocia’s tourism also. What one purchases in buying a balloon ticket is not only temporary visual rights but also, and importantly, the opportunity for one’s body to be carried up into that air-space, upon which the visuality depends. This then leads to the issue of hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia also being a new process of physical appropriation of various spaces.

Spatial appropriation

The energy that allows the tourist’s body to ‘float’ through the air in a hot-air balloon of course comes from the gas that is ignited to heat the balloon. Gas is released at regular intervals to keep the balloon at the height that the pilot desires at each moment. Each time the gas burners are ignited a loud roaring noise is created. This noise, more than the visual ‘invasion’ of privacy in the Cappadocian villages, is what is considered to be the nuisance of the balloons. With more and more balloons flying in the area, villagers (and other tourists) are very regularly woken in the early hours of the morning when balloons are flying over their houses. Noise ‘pollution’ conflicts in leisure spaces are common in many contexts, such as the use of jet-skis and motor-boats on coastlines and lakes. However, the point at which noise levels becomes unreasonable is also very difficult to gauge in such contexts, and so where laws are made to regulate such practices they are often more related to other associated ‘nuisance’ factors, such as the dangers that jet-skis and motor-boats pose to recreational swimmers near a beach.

Similarly, low flight restrictions for balloons have recently been imposed by at least one town council in the Cappadocia region. However, rather than being based upon the noise they make being a nuisance, nor the visual invasion of privacy, I was told by one of the (incoming / foreign) pilots that the reason the Mayor had imposed the restrictions was because of the belief that the “poisonous gases” from the balloons were affecting the fertility of the young women in the area. This is interesting on two levels. Firstly, the story undoubtedly relates to a recent legal battle that the Mayor was having with the government to retain ‘township’ status, because the population had dropped down to ‘village’ level which would mean considerable loss of government funding as well as loss of the town council and mayoral positions. The interesting point here is that the Mayor found a way to blame the balloons for this issue, indicating that the mood relating to the balloons was becoming increasingly negative. The other pertinent point from this story is that it was told to me by one of the foreigner ‘expatriates’ from one of the ballooning companies. The multiple ballooning operations in the region are owned and piloted almost entirely by incomers who are either from outside of Turkey or Turks from outside of the region. Such stories circulating amongst these incomers are an articulation of power in relation to knowledge. The implied silliness of the balloons-affecting-fertility idea reifies the ‘scientific’ knowledge of the incomers and makes claims on the ‘correct’ knowledge.

I was also told stories about the “poisonous gases” of the balloons by villagers. These stories related more to their orchards and vineyards and that there was an issue with the balloon gases poisoning and killing the crops. Again, exogenous balloon operators countered these ideas with stories of global warming and the lowering of the water-table as well as the idea that because of the economic benefits from tourism the villagers receive, they are neglecting their fields and that is why the trees and vines are dying.

The orchards and vineyards are becoming a highly contentious issue surrounding the increase in ballooning activity in the region. Since the particular points where balloons land cannot be fully controlled any flat space is a potential landing sight and this is usually a farmer’s field. Sometimes balloon pilots use apricot or apple trees as ‘brakes’ to slow down the balloon as they are trying to land. Villagers complain that this practice is breaking their trees. Moreover, beyond the balloon and its basket, there are many vehicles associated with the take-off and landing of the balloons. There are usually two four-wheel drive vehicles, one of which tows the trailer for the balloon basket. These will be driven anywhere, sometimes over multiple fields / gardens, so that the ground crew and trailer are in position when the balloon comes down to land. There also has to be a mini-bus or coach to transport the balloons passengers from the site. With so many companies operating in the area now some have bought pieces of land to use as take-off sites. After taking off, though, the balloons go wherever the wind takes them and so the pilots have to land the balloons whenever and wherever it is appropriate and safe to do so. Besides the potential damage caused by the balloon, vehicle and foot traffic, the tourists often then treat the vineyard or orchard they land in as their own during their post-flight celebrations. There may consequently be as many as twenty or thirty people all helping themselves to grapes off the vines in one field. This could significantly affect the income of the landowner.

However, despite the complaints and increased regulation pertaining to the physical appropriation of spaces in and around the villages of Cappadocia, the ballooning activity is largely condoned at all levels because of its input to the local economy. So although individuals told me negative stories about the balloons, when I asked how ‘the villagers’ in general feel about the balloons, I was told: ‘They don’t say anything because everybody’s earning money from them’.  

Appropriation of the economy         

As indicated above, there are now multiple ballooning companies in the Cappadocia region and the original companies have grown into thriving businesses. Together it is estimated they employ as many as 500 people directly (including crew, drivers and office staff). However, the way that the business of ballooning is appropriating the economy is significantly more widespread because of the effect that it is having on overall business practice in Cappadocia through the practice of ‘commission-based marketing’. This is where a commission fee is paid for recommending, or touting, and ‘selling’ a balloon ticket. As the ballooning industry has grown in Cappadocia, this process has grown to become a highly significant feature of business practice and of the relationships among businesses and entrepreneurs there. The opening of increasing numbers of ballooning companies has led to increased competition so that commission payments have grown also. 

Importantly, the kind of informal economic activities of street guides or ‘touts’ that Crick (1994) discussed earlier in relation to Kandy, Sri Lanka, are largely shunned by the Cappadocia community and are therefore largely absent, although there are some individuals who ‘hang out’ in places such as the bus stand in the centre of Göreme village to try to get chatting to tourists with the aim of selling them a balloon ride. Most recommendations are instead made by the owners and workers of guest houses, restaurants and tour agencies in return for commission payments. Many of the pansiyon (guest house) businesses and individuals who own and work in Cappadocia’s many small tourism businesses, have come to rely on persuading customers to go ballooning. This has resulted in many of the businesses catering to backpackers and other independent tourists in the village receiving a large part of their yearly income from commission payments from ballooning. Consequently, the business of accommodating and providing hospitality to tourists in the pansiyons becomes less of a focus of the business. Some guest houses aim to get tourists in for one night in order to sell them a balloon tour and then it is preferable that they leave so as to make room for the next (potential ballooning) customers. This has changed the way that villager entrepreneurs perform ‘Turkish hospitality’ (see Tucker 2003) in relation to their tourist ‘guests’.
As well as seemingly appropriating the economy in general, then, the practice of commission payments has led to ballooning’s appropriation of individuals’ entrepreneurial practices and host-guest relationships. Now, any individual, from freelance tour guides to waiters in restaurants to ‘tea-boys’ in tea houses, can earn a significant income from ballooning even if they do not possess the financial capital to set up their own more formal tourism business. What they need instead is to develop the art of recommendation. However, this has also led to an increased fervour in the sense of villager entrepreneur ‘hosts’ owning their tourist ‘guests’. I heard of ferocious arguments wherein owners of guesthouses were accusing other more freelance individuals or waiters from restaurants of ‘stealing’ their guests by selling them a balloon ride. I have discussed this possessive attitude towards tourist guests previously in relation to commission payments for day tours and Turkish carpet shopping (Tucker 2003; Mottiar and Tucker 2007). Now, however, with ballooning being a more expensive activity and also a more guaranteed sale, tourism entrepreneurs all the more keenly assert their rights of possession over the tourists they ‘host’.


This paper has used the concept of appropriation to consider the ways in which new forms of consumption practice can affect how tourists and local people consider themselves and their relation to each other. Firstly, ballooning in Cappadocia has appropriated the tourist imagination so that a distinguished tourist identity is attained through the practice of ballooning. Hot-air ballooning has come to be considered a distinguished way of experiencing the Cappadocia landscape, largely because of its extensive media coverage but also because of its close association with visuality and photography, themselves privileged in the tourism context. Consequently, the balloon flights are orchestrated so that tourists perform, and in turn visually and physically appropriate, village-scapes and valley-scapes in new ways; ways that are otherwise not possible. Moreover, the business of ballooning has appropriated the economy in general, creating new forms of business practice at all levels and new types of entrepreneurial relationships as well as ‘host-guest’ relationships.

Ballooning practice in Cappadocia has re-emphasised the observatory environment of tourism, thus compounding the notion that places and people are there simply to be gazed upon and consumed by tourists and also, therefore, that they should always be available for appropriation through new forms of tourism consumption practice. The notion of appropriation itself thus takes us usefully beyond the view of tourism as merely representation and consumption to focus more firmly upon tourism’s colonising tendencies (but at the same time, therefore, inviting consideration of tourism’s post-colonial possibilities).


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