“Astrotourism” isn't tourism in spaceships (yet) - it’s tourists who travel to do astronomy and it could boost the whole of New Zealand’s tourism economy, experts say.
Astrotourists are people who seek out the world’s dark skies, where they can clearly see the stars, constellations and galaxies without light pollution.
There are more than 40 Dark Sky Reserves worldwide; New Zealand’s largest is the Mackenzie District’s 4300 sq km area and astrotourism is the Mackenzie’s largest growth area in terms of new product development.
But the Martinborough Dark Sky Society, which has partnered with Westpac, is aiming to create the largest international dark sky reserve in the world, in the Wairarapa.
The popularity of dark sky reserves has skyrocketed as artificial lights continue to expand across urban areas and disrupt both human and wildlife day-night cycles.
People worldwide are experiencing out-of-whack body clocks due to exposure to too much artificial ‘blue light’ during the night, research shows.
“These blue-light sensitive cells in our eyes reset our body clock to the new time zone when we travel, but if these cells perceive too much blue at night, then our body gets the wrong message about what time of day it is,” Dr Lora Wu, Senior Research Officer at Massey University’s Sleep/Wake Research Centre says.
“This not only disrupts our sleep but can increase risk of obesity, depression and potentially some types of cancer,” Dr Wu said.
Artificial light is a global issue - 80% of the Earth’s land mass suffers from light pollution and 99% of people in Europe and the U.S. have their night skies obscured by artificial lighting, the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy says.
The Dark Sky Project in Tekapo, which was the first sky reserve in New Zealand, already brings in around 40,000 visitors per year for astrotourism.
So, by creating the largest dark sky reserve in the world, it would not only help the environment and wildlife but also have the potential to dramatically increase New Zealand’s tourism industry during winter.
“We want to protect against light pollution, which is bad for both human and animal life, but this can also boost tourism in winter,” says Martinborough Dark Sky Society Chairman Lee Mauger.
“Astrotourism is stronger in the winter because of the longer hours of dark skies available, so it can help even out the flow of tourism from summer through winter,” he said.
Westpac’s Head of Architecture Services Julian Downs says: “Not only will this boost NZ’s tourism over winter as a whole but also in this local region that is not a centre.
“Westpac supports regional growth and the sustainable businesses in the Wairarapa which are operating.
“We are also promoting the technological aspect of this project, which supports the innovative technology involved in analysing dark sky data,” Downs says.
“Astrotourism is certainly growing in popularity, especially here in the Mackenzie,” Mackenzie District Digital Marketing Executive Jason Menard said.
Currently the largest dark sky reserve is in Canada, but New Zealand might soon take that title.