THE ME­TE­ORIC RISE OF ASTROTOURISM

As more and more peo­ple get into stargaz­ing, the travel in­dus­try has been quick to re­spond. By Anna Hart

Sunday Times - - Cool Spots -

Apolo­gies to read­ers who ex­pected this story to be about Vir­gin Galac­tic’s ef­forts to pelt a planeload of wealthy show-offs to­wards Pluto.

“Astrotourism” is in fact a clever re­brand­ing of stuff we’ve been do­ing for ages: stargaz­ing, eclipse-chas­ing and gen­er­ally get­ting moony over the moon.

As a trend, astrotourism has some­thing of the up­cy­cled sofa about it. But we’re cer­tainly see­ing the sky dif­fer­ently to how we did 10 years ago.

As­tro­physics is no longer the sole pre­serve of boffins; stargaz­ing isn’t just for hip­pies. Per­haps it’s down to Pro­fes­sor

Brian Cox, the slick-haired celebrity as­tro­physi­cist, be­cause he could talk us into any­thing. Per­haps it’s In­sta­gram’s fault, as we all scram­ble to post pic­tures of su­per­moons to prove how con­nected we are, both to the cos­mos and 4G. Or per­haps, as we spend more and more hours glued to our screens, we’re gaz­ing to the heav­ens in de­spair. And dis­cov­er­ing that it’s ac­tu­ally quite nice up there.

The travel in­dus­try has been quick to re­spond to spaced-out con­sumers, and the won­der­ful thing about astrotourism is that it di­rects trav­ellers to more re­mote des­ti­na­tions and lodges, dis­tribut­ing our tourist dol­lar — and our eco­log­i­cal foot­print — more evenly across the planet. The en­emy of astrotourism is the flu­o­res­cent bulb. Astro­tourists are “dark­ness seek­ers”, look­ing for places where the sky is the dark­est and clear­est, steer­ing clear of light­pol­luted tourist hubs or ur­ban ar­eas.

The more un­der­de­vel­oped an area, the more far-flung the lo­ca­tion, the bet­ter a fledg­ling astrotourism in­dus­try can thrive. Astrotourism favours the un­der­dog. It’s the big, glitzy chain ho­tels in overde­vel­oped ar­eas that don’t stand a chance.

My first ex­pe­ri­ence of sleep­ing un­der the stars was on the roof of Sos­susvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia (and­be­yond.com), and it re­mains my most mem­o­rable night in a ho­tel ever. The irony is that I wasn’t even in the ho­tel; I was on top of it. Since then I’ve spot­ted a num­ber of ce­les­tial of­fer­ings from tour op­er­a­tors and ho­tels, milk­ing the Milky Way for all it’s worth.

Bouteco (bouteco.co) is a re­li­able source of in­spi­ra­tion for eco-minded ac­com­mo­da­tion where your stargaz­ing can be done in style. Lux­ury eco-lodge Fogo Is­land (fo­go­is­landinn.ca), in New­found­land, max­imises its su­perla­tive van­tage point with a te­le­scope, of­fer­ing a high-end stargaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence per­fect for star-crossed hon­ey­moon­ers.

But while lux­ury lodges are get­ting in on the act, astrotourism is des­tined to be dom­i­nated by the af­ford­able end of the spec­trum. Ac­com­mo­da­tion doesn’t come any less light-pol­luted than camp­sites, af­ter all. And hum­ble eco-lodges such as Kas­bah du Toubkal (kas­bah­dutoubkal.com) in the At­las Moun­tains, Morocco, which has been plug­ging away at low-im­pact tourism for decades, are sud­denly hip.

But ar­dent seek­ers of dark­ness will find the clear­est skies in the spots they reach by foot, bike or kayak, where the only light comes from the pur­ple flame of a Tran­gia stove. Ear­lier this sum­mer I did a four-day self-guided kayak­ing and wild-camp­ing trip around Swe­den’s St Anna Ar­chi­pel­ago with the Fix­ers (fix­er­sworld.com), my first ex­pe­ri­ence of stargaz­ing at sea.

The sky swiftly re­placed my Net­flix habit; watch­ing stars emerg­ing from the dark was the nightly show I didn’t want to miss. Oceans, moun­tains and deserts lend them­selves to this sort of un­pol­luted cos­mic ex­pe­ri­ence, as do tents and ham­mocks, and tour op­er­a­tor flash­pack.com of­fers an eight-day stargaz­ing and desert-hik­ing ad­ven­ture in Jor­dan.

Airbnb (airbnb.co.uk), al­ways swift to spot a trend, is of­fer­ing stargaz­ing through the world’s big­gest te­le­scope, in La Palma, one of the most re­mote Ca­nary Is­lands and an emerg­ing astrotourism hotspot. This sum­mer Mars spins closer to Earth than it has in 15 years, an event that trav­ellers are happy to base their trips around. And, for ded­i­cated dark-sky dorks, there are night sky fes­ti­vals such as Bryce Canyon Astro­fest in Utah, and the South­ern Star Party, a gath­er­ing of stargaz­ing en­thu­si­asts held in the Western Cape, South Africa, twice a year.

So if you’re still search­ing for travel in­spi­ra­tion, look to the stars. That’s black sky think­ing.

Pic­ture: and­be­yond.com

NOT IN­SIDE, ON TOP The writer spent a night on the roof of the Sos­susvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia.

Pic­ture: Alan Keo­hane/kas­bah­dutoubkal.com

HUM­BLE & HIP The Kas­bah du Toubkal in the At­las Moun­tains, Morocco.

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