Why Dark Sky Tourism Is Catching On

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An individual silhouetted against a backdrop of stars in Queensland, Australia. (Photo: Dualiti Photos [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

In the fight to protect natural wonders around the world from pollution, development and other man-made byproducts of our modern world, it's an overlooked fact that we're on the verge of losing one of our most enchanting. Even more ironic, it's not something that requires travel or tickets to experience. The night sky — a free, all-access glowing spectacle — has been tamed by humanity to the point where 83% of the world's population now live under light polluted skies.

There are, however, efforts underway to protect what vestiges of the unspoiled night remain. Organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), which works with land owners and municipalities to protect vast areas under pristine dark skies for future generations, has to date designated 15 dark sky reserves around the world. The IDA has also designated over 65 smaller, but still impressive, dark sky parks throughout the United States. As interest in astrotourism has increased, communities have also embraced their fortunate settings under starlight to offer stargazing tours, events around spectacles like solar eclipses and even rocket launch viewing parties.

And now, thanks to travel writer and astrotourism guide Valerie Stimac, we have a single catalog of the opportunities available to look up in wonder at the heavens above. Her new book "Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism," not only features 35 of the darkest stargazing places around the world, but also highlights annual spectacles like meteor showers, the best place to catch the northern (or southern) lights, rocket launch sightseeing and even details on the major eclipses of the next decade and where to watch them.

The new Lonely Planet book 'Dark Skies,' by Valerie Stimac, offers an in-depth guide to the world of astrotourism. (Photo: Valerie Stimac/Lonely Planet)

"In cooperation with my editor at Lonely Planet, we went from idea to final draft in about 12 weeks," Stimac told MNN of the evolution of "Dark Skies." "She had a background in science and astronomy coverage and I was already writing about the subject for my own site, Space Tourism Guide, so we were able to tackle the list of topics quickly to decide where we wanted to include and how to organize the book. After that, it was a lot of researching, writing, and working with sources around the globe!"

Valerie Stimac under a starry night sky. (Photo: Valerie Stimac)

Stimac, who chronicles her travels around the globe (and offers tips for those looking to do the same) through her site Valerie & Valise, said she's deeply encouraged by interest across a lot of the different types of astrotourism.

"Obviously seeing rockets and the northern lights have always been popular; eclipse-chasing has grown more since the 2017 total solar eclipse too," she added. "Traveling for dark sky experiences is probably among the newest 'type' of astrotourism, and the International Dark-Sky Association has done a great job of generating excitement and interest in these locations – and showing how astrotourism is often a great complimentary activity for travel to spots that are also great natural destinations during the day."

Arches National Park, one of over 65 dark sky parks in the U.S. as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association, is a popular attraction for stargazers. (Photo: By Jun Su/Shutterstock)

While Stimac praised organizations like the IDA for doing a fantastic job of helping to protect pristine regions from encroaching light pollution, one of the biggest challenges faced is that astrotourism is still a young industry. "Not everyone is interested and/or willing to travel for these experiences," she shared.

Worse still, some areas lack both the financial and organizational resources to attract potential stargazers.

"Personally, I think the most endangered dark sky locations are those where there's no tourism infrastructure in place," she said. "For example, Wadi Rum in Jordan is a spectacular stargazing spot, but there's no CVB/DMO (Convention and Visitors Bureau/Destination Marketing Organization) there to help petition for dark sky designation status, so it's unlikely that development there will be done in a way that reduces light pollution.... and that will hurt the destination in the long run."

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The Milky Way rising over the rugged and rocky terrain of Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: By Saptashaw Chakraborty/Shutterstock)

Designated a Dark Sky Park by the IDA in 2017, Joshua Tree National Park is a popular attraction for stargazers living on the west coast. Despite encroaching light pollution on its western borders from Coachella Valley cities, its relative isolation from major cities in the east (with Phoenix being the closest metropolitan area some 300 miles away), provides it with some of the darkest skies in California.

"While Joshua Tree National Park has an unfortunate amount of light pollution in the larger region, it's dark enough and such an otherworldly landscape that it's still an unforgettable place to go stargazing," Stimac said of the 790,000-acre park. "There's also a really low development footprint within the park so it's very quiet and isolated – totally like another planet or moon!"

Elqui Valley, Chile

A long exposure shot of the beautiful night sky above the Elqui Valley in Chile. (Photo: By Pung/Shutterstock)

A popular wine region centered on the Elqui River in northern Chile, the Elqui Valley also offers ideal conditions (high-altitude, low-population, limited cloud cover) for uncorking a bottle and toasting the heavens above. Spanning some 90,000 acres, the region has the distinction of being named the first-ever Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Astronomical Union in 2015. It's also home to nearly a dozen observatories, boutique stargazing hotels and a large variety of tours that cover both cosmic and daytime spectacles.

"This was the first place I saw the southern night sky, and was amazed by how different the Milky Way and constellations look," said Stimac. "It was also a treat to see the Magellanic Clouds for the first time."

Wadi Rum, Jordan

The Milky Way in Wadi Rum, Jordan. (Photo: By Zaid Abu Taha/Shutterstock)

One of Jordan's most valuable tourist destinations, the Wadi Rum (known also as "The Valley of the Moon") is an otherworldly mountain desert featuring dramatic rock formations and wind-swept rust-colored dunes. It's no wonder that this UNESCO World Heritage Site, spanning 280 square miles, has been nicknamed "Mars on Earth."

"I'm partial to Jordan because I'm leading a tour group here in March!," said Stimac. "Wadi Rum is an incredible landscape too (used for a lot of sci-fi movies like 'Prometheus,' 'Rogue One' and 'The Martian') and it's one of the dark places where you can just sit and look up at the wonder of the night sky with very little interruption."