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AFP

The sky above the Mexican city of León was filled with hot air balloons of all shapes, sizes, and colours on Sunday to mark the start of the International Balloon Festival.

But unlike in normal years, there were few to watch the spectacle, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the bulk of spectators to observe the event online.

Huge figures of animated characters such as SpongeBob Squarepants and La Gallina Pintadita floated across the sky above the few spectators to be there in person. For everyone else, the event was streamed online.

"This year the festival is a little different, there are fewer balloons, fewer people [...] but it is a respite for me, in the middle of such a difficult year," María Inés López, a spectator, said.

The pandemic forced the organizers of the International Balloon Festival (FIG) to close access to the half-million visitors who usually attend.

Only 400 people attended in person, including pilots, organisation members and a few attendees.

"It is the only event that this year will be broadcast 'online' to the whole world, the only event that dared to take place," said Escandra Salim, FIG director.

Due to sanitary restrictions, organisers moved the venue of the festival from the Metropolitan Park to a nearby golf club, where masks, antibacterial gel and temperature measurement was mandatory.

The FIG, which will conclude activities next Monday, this year brought together hot air balloons piloted by professionals from Mexico, France, Canada, the United States, and Brazil, among others.