Astrotourism: if you want an out-of-this-world holiday, look to the stars
A growing number of people are figuring out that the best tourism spots on Earth are not on Earth at all - they're in the skies, writes Anna Hart
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 light-polluted 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, 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 is a reliable source of inspiration for eco-minded accommodation where your stargazing can be done in style.
Luxury eco-lodge Fogo Island, 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 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, 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, 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. - The Daily Telegraph
SA'S STARGAZING HOTSPOT
The tiny Karoo town of Sutherland is on the list of top destinations for stargazers because it is home to both the largest optical telescope and the most powerful radio telescope in the southern hemisphere.
Sutherland's altitude (1,800m above sea level) and semi-desert setting provide the clearest conditions for communing with celestial objects.
The town is constantly crawling with rubber-necked astro-travellers and absent-minded professors from all over the world, making for a fun cosmopolitan experience as well as a night sky to remember.
The observatory hosts guided day tours (R80 pp) and night tours (R100 pp). Booking is essential. Visit tours.saao.ac.za or call 023-571-2436.