By Paul Savio
One of the latest buzzwords in the tourism industry across the world has been Astro Tourism, which refers to tourism associated with astronomy-related experiences. Of these, the primary experience is stargazing, which constitutes what we call Dark Sky Tourism. Here, tourists travel to specific locations known for their dark skies, thus offering a fantastic view of the cosmos. Activities that happen here include stargazing, viewing celestial objects like the Moon and planets through the telescope, hunting for deep-sky objects that are not visible through the naked eye such as galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters, and astrophotography.
But Dark Sky Tourism is unique in its recency. It wasn’t too long ago that we didn’t have to travel to distant locations to get a glimpse of the stars.
The dark sky over time
The night sky has been many things for humans, since the very first of our species looked up. It has been a source of entertainment, inspiration, fear, and awe all rolled into one. It is the basis of most of our myths and beliefs. Religions have originated from people looking up at the stars, and even today it is a prime component in our definition of spirituality. It has been an integral part of our way of life for almost the entirety of humankind’s existence.
However, since the days of electrification, things changed dramatically. Dark nights became a thing of the past (or, occasionally, a result of electrical grid failures). The abundance of light has led to its overuse. Instead of just lighting the ground, which is what is needed, we decided to light up the skies. Irresponsibly built lighting systems and extravagant displays have led to Light, oddly, becoming a pollutant. Today, scientists estimate that over 60 per cent of India suffers from Light Pollution. And it is growing at over three times the global average growth rate. The dark night sky is no longer part of our daily lives.
Basking in the glory of the night sky is almost primal to us as humans. Consequently, hunting for clear dark skies soon became a passion for those with the time and money for this endeavour. In India, Dark Sky Tourism has been around for a while. For many decades now, people have been packing their equipment such as telescopes and cameras and heading out to places in the middle of forests, or high up in the mountains, or even to remote locations on coastlines and deserts, to get a glimpse of the stars up above. If you go to Leh in Ladakh, Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, Kutch in Gujarat or Neil Island in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, chances are that you’ll bump into a few amateur astronomers and astrophotographers. But then, this has been a niche occupied only by the extremely passionate.
Over the last few years, there has been a disruption in this system. Many private unorganised and, of late, organised players have entered this arena to make dark sky locations more accessible. Camps and observatories are coming up, allowing travellers to have a great stargazing experience without having to worry about food, stay, or equipment. However, the exponential part of the growth curve in this sector still lies ahead, with the biggest player of all – the Government – yet to enter the arena.
Dark sky places
As locations become destinations for dark sky tourism, more and more tourists will flock to these places. This will result in growing the local ecosystem – more hotels, eateries and taxi operators will mushroom in, and maybe the buses or trains to the locations will increase in frequency. This, however, will result in increased light pollution, thus destroying the very dark sky that created this place. Organic growth of dark sky locations as destinations will, ironically, lead to their demise.
To ensure this does not happen, the location’s development must be controlled. Appropriate lighting must be used, which are properly shaded to light up only the ground. Establishments must not set up extremely bright lighting that casts a glow onto the sky. Certain parts of the place must be kept in complete darkness. Access and emergency services must be built up. Food and beverage centres must come up that cater to late night and early morning travellers.
This mode of curated development already exists in wildlife tourism and is the basis for national parks and wildlife reserves. The equivalent of these reserves for Astro tourism is the Dark Sky Place. A Dark Sky Place is one which is developed from scratch, purely to promote dark sky tourism and night-time ecology. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a non-profit organization that works to promote dark sky places, recognizes and certifies different kinds of such places, ranging from small communities to whole islands. One such classification is the Dark Sky Reserve, a place of at least 700 square kilometres which has a completely dark central area with a populated periphery. There are only 19 Dark Sky Reserves in the world, with none in Asia. This might change soon, with Hanle in Ladakh being developed by the Ladakh Government as a Dark Sky Reserve.
Hanle is home to the Indian Astronomical Observatory run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. It is a fantastic location for stargazing and has attracted adventurous tourists for decades now. Consequently, it is the ideal location for a Dark Sky place. It remains to be seen how it gets established as a tourist attraction. Its success though, will spur other Governments to follow suit, and look at dark sky tourism as a tool for revenue and for social upliftment.
The scale and scope of setting up dark sky places is too large for private entities to drive, and such places will not come into existence, let alone thrive, without the Government taking the lead. Setting these up will further drive private investments in this sector, with smaller observatories, tour agencies, experience centres and other attractions coming up at or near these hubs.
The western world has already moved far ahead in this aspect, so it is a matter of time before India catches up. With the potential for various state governments to develop dark sky places, and a host of private players waiting to ride on their coattails, the future of Dark Sky Tourism looks, well, bright.
The author is CEO and Co-Founder, Starscapes.
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