“The South American eclipse (scheduled to happen in July 2019) has generated so much interest that hotels and transportation services were booked by September 2018,” says Nic DiPalma, founder/CEO of SpacetimeLabs (a creative agency for science) and co-founder of US-based AstroTours, a science-travel company. “The tourism industry in the region was not prepared for this overwhelming enthusiasm. You can still get there for the eclipse, but you may need to get creative with your transportation and accommodation. Consider camping, perhaps,” he adds.
If several reports are to be believed, nearly seven million people travelled across the US in 2017 to witness the total solar eclipse. No wonder, astro tourism is billed to be the next big international travel trend.
- South Africa: Visit the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) to view the deep sky, thanks to the unpolluted environment.
- US: The 4,207-metre summit of dormant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the only place in the US from where you can see the entire Southern Cross constellation. Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska, Death Valley National Park in California, Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, Big Bend National Park in Texas, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana are the top spots.
- Namibia: Look for luxury lodges or camps in the Namibian desert
- Chile: Another great place to set base at is Chile’s Atacama Salt Flats
- If your idea is solely to relax, hop aboard a cruise ship, there are some with a resident astronomer.
It offers a new look at a destination and may give you another reason to revisit one. For example, if you’ve done the touristy trail of Iceland, how about experiencing its dark skies and listening to stories from an astrophysicist? AstroTours enables visitors to do that. A small portion of your fee will be donated towards research in the areas you explore.
The company came about as a collaboration between Nic DiPalma, and Paul M Sutter, astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and host of Ask A Spaceman on YouTube. In 2018, AstroTours launched its pilot calendar with itineraries to Iceland, the Atacama Desert, Chile, and a Caribbean cruise. Trips were sold out in a few months. AstroTours has lined up science-travel experience tours for 2019, looking for places where one can view the Northern Lights from, along with lunar eclipses, meteor showers, planetary alignment and close planetary orbits.
Discussing the rise of astro tourism, DiPalma draws a parallel with that of experiential and eco tourism and feels this is a sustainable form of travel that creates economic benefits for rural and remote regions around the world.
To truly appreciate stars of different sizes and shapes, or chase a meteor shower, one needs to move away from urban spaces. A cloudless night away from city limits where there’s minimal or no light pollution (the light from the full moon also counts) is ideal for visual astronomy or astro photography.
The deceptively simple act of camping under the stars has morphed into a tourism trend, at times acquiring a luxury connotation. Think, renting a glass dome luxury pod in far-flung zones of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Chasing clear zones
The US-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) certifies regions as International Dark Sky Sanctuaries (these include the Great Barrier Island (New Zealand), Cosmic Campground (US), Gabriela Mistral (Chile) and Rainbow Bridge National Monument (US); Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third-largest island, is the latest entrant), International Dark Sky Reserves and International Dark Sky Parks, to encourage communities, parks and protected areas to preserve dark sites around the world through responsible lighting policies.
Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand), Brecon Beacons National Park (Wales), Mont-Mégantic (Québec), NamibRand Nature Reserve (Namibia), Pic du Midi (France), Rhön (Germany) and Westhavelland (Germany) are some of the Dark Sky Reserves.
Astro tourism also extends to witnessing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) or solar eclipses. Nordic countries have resorts conducting themed activities to help those travelling witness the Northern Lights.
Join the bandwagon
West Asia, now has an international Dark Sky Park at the Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) in Israel. In a statement, Israel’s tourism board shares that guests are offered a two-hour experience led by an astronomer at the highest point in the Negev desert on the cliffs of the Ramon Crater. For a more pampered experience, the Ein Bokek resort district on the shores of the Dead Sea offers tours that include spa treatments and stargazing.
The Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in Oman offers beginner sessions in astro photography.
Island nations don’t want to be left behind. In the North Island in Seychelles, where there are only 11 barefoot-luxury villas, guests are encouraged to stargaze from the plateau between Bernica and Spa Hill.
In India, visual astronomy and astro photography enthusiasts count Ladakh as a favourite, along with Spiti (Himachal Pradesh) and Rann of Kutch (Gujarat).
Neelima Vallangi, who turned digital nomad a decade ago, often travels off the beaten track. “During my first trek in the Himalayas, I had a clear view of the Milky Way and was mesmerised,” she recounts. She tries to stargaze during each of her trips to different destinations. Neelima recalls standing on a beach in Andamans, on a full moon night. “The sun had set and the moon was rising from the blue waters; in another part of the sky, the Milky Way was above me. No other experience matched that for me.”
How far do you need to go for dark skies? Look for pockets of rural settlements or forest zones. Winters are ideal, points out deep sky astro photographer Satish Ponnala: “In India, enthusiasts make stargazing pilgrimages to Ladakh and try to brave the cold; it isn’t easy. Begin by heading to the outskirts of your cities,” he says.
Photographer Ismail Shariff, who often takes far-flung routes for wildlife photography expeditions, remembers being blown away by the colours of stars and planets he captured one night in Gujarat. “In Ladakh, we spotted constellations near Pangong Tso. We didn’t mind the chill.”
Astro tourism needn’t always involve forking out large sums. Look for educational tours if you’re travelling with children, or reach out to astronomy clubs in your cities that organise weekend trips.
Delhi-based Astro Tourism organises both educational and recreational trips within India and abroad for students and families. “Corporates take up weekend group trips to Jim Corbett National Park, Dehradun and other areas from Delhi,” says Pankaj Bahmba, director, Astro Tourism.