The days after the pandemic have seen tourists prefer lesser known, less crowded destinations. There is also a lot of demand for having new experiences. The latest among such trends in Karnataka has been astro (astronomy) tourism.
Though stargazing only used to be a hobby before, now separate, pollution-free, destinations are being set up for sky enthusiasts to visit and observe. While most astro enthusiasts usually make their trips to Hanle village near Ladakh or Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, two similar properties set up in Kodagu recently by a private player have attracted over 2,000 tourists so far.
Starscapes, a startup, has been offering astronomy experiences throughout the country with their observatories, to cater to the growing interest. They provide state-of-the-art equipment for observations, astrophotography and research projects. In Karnataka, they launched their first property, a mobile observatory, in Madikeri and the second in Virajpet (both in Kodagu) in December 2021 and April 2022, respectively. Out of more than 2,000 guests here, 20 to 25% were from Bengaluru, the company says.
“During the off-season (June to September and February to March), Starscapes has more tourists from Karnataka as compared to other States,” the company said. After noticing the good response, they received in Madikeri, they opened a new observatory in Ooty to attract more tourists from Bengaluru and Chennai.
However, the local tour operators say that the demand for such destinations is yet to pick up as most travellers who visit, still prefer the famed Raja Seat, Mandalapatti, Kushalnagar and the like. “We book around 25-30 tours in a day. Only recently, just one or two tourists enquired about this astro tourism spot. It is yet to gain popularity. Not even many locals are aware of it, let alone tourists,” said an employee at Skanda Coorg Travels in Madikeri.
An employee at Coorg Home Stays Association said there had been enquiries about the observatories, but the numbers were very few.
The Western Ghats and the northern Himalayas
Within the State, deep inside the Western Ghats, is where stargazers go for astro tours. “It is impossible to see clear skies in places close to Bengaluru. Many go to Kemmannugundi, Kuduremukha, and Bhadra forest beyond Chikkamagaluru for skygazing. There are some pockets available in Karnataka, but the season is only from November to March,” said Ravindra Aradhya, president, Association of Bangalore Amateur Astronomers.
The proximity to the sea makes south Indian observatories a less favoured option due to the frequently cloudy skies. This is why staunch astro observers go to the Himalayan range. This, however, can be a costly affair as it includes transporting their telescopes, spending on warm clothes and other equipment.
“There are two reasons why astro tourists go to the Himalayas: one is the climate and the other is the lack of light pollution. Those who go to observatories in Kodagu or other hill stations, prefer to go to the Himalayas to observe faint, deep sky objects. Something which you can see in a small telescope in urban areas can be seen with the naked eye in the Himalayan range. Additionally, the colder it gets, the better it gets for astrophotography,” explained Naveen Nanjundappa, member, Bangalore Astronomical Society (BAS).
The star parties at Hanle village can now happen over a dedicated 1,000-acre space which is why deep sky observers from the State make it a point to visit the place at least once in their lifetime. Some others are frequent travellers. Vishwanath S.K., a member of BAS, is gearing up to visit Hanle for the first time this month. “This is almost like a pilgrimage for us. One of the world’s largest telescopes at the Indian Astronomical Society and lesser atmospheric space between the earth and sky due to its high altitude makes it the most favourable place for skygazing,” he said.
No plans to develop astro tourism sites in the State
Tourism Department officials said so far, the government had not set up any observatories for stargazing or astro tourism, but such relaxed vacations were being promoted under wellness tourism. “For now, we do not have any plans to set up such properties, but in the future, depending on the demand, we might take up projects in astro tourism,” said T. Venkatesh, Director, Department of Tourism.