Astrotourism - The Latest Travel Trend
Astrotourism is the latest travel trend, emerging in popularity as it immerses visitors in the starry sky, away from light pollution and unplugging from digital overload.
As the Project Manager behind the John Glenn Astronomy Park (JGAP), I found hope in this emerging trend, satisfying an increasing need as light pollution continues to evolve and consume our night skies, eliminating the essence of nature. In response to fast-paced lifestyles, digital overload, and anxiety, this trend has grown in demand, offering an immersive way to reconnect with nature. 99% of the United States and Europe’s population live under light-polluted skies, with research proving the negative impact on human health and biodiversity, raising concern, and the need, for these immersive celestial experiences.
My familiarity with this branch of tourism began when my husband Brad and I joined our local astronomy club, the Columbus Astronomical Society (CAS). One of its members, Bill Kramer, is a self-professed umbraphile, a lover of the shadow of the moon, and a chaser of total solar eclipses. Brad was able to witness his first total solar eclipse in Zimbabwe, just a short time before that country’s President Robert Mugabe closed its borders to foreigners, and I myself witnessed an eclipse in Side, Turkey. I, too, fell in love with the moon's shadow. I, too, have become an eclipse chaser, albeit one with more modest goals than Bill or Brad.
Eclipse-chasing tours frequently focus not just on seeing the eclipse, but on experiencing what else a particular country - no matter how remote - has to offer. The eclipse is simply a highlight in the middle. According to WGSN, a trend forecasting research tool, space tourism is the next frontier for astrotourism, demonstrating this interest will only continue to develop.
Astrotourism also includes trips to see meteor showers, auroras, transits of Venus and Mercury (when the planet passes in front of the sun and appears on its face as a tiny dot), or simply, the enjoyment of a dark starry sky. There are many such “star parties” throughout the US and Canada. Many enjoy attending them for the sole purpose of being under a dark sky - a rare commodity in the 21st century.
In the Architecture field, thanks to organizations such as US Green Building Council (USGBC) and International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which promote LEED and WELL green building certification systems, people over the US are becoming more and more aware of light pollution. Scientific studies have shown that excessive light affects our sleep cycles, well-being and the natural environment. To achieve dark skies it is not necessary to shun lights, but to use adequate light fixtures and no more than the necessary amount of light for a given objective. In the era of LEDs it is important to pay attention to the amount of lumens generated.
Looking at maps that depict the brightness of the night sky in Ohio, there is a darker patch at the southeast part of the state. This is where the Hocking Hills State Park is located. More than a decade ago, Brad's idea of having an observing site at the park was all but a wish. Hearing of that idea, the non-profit organization The Friends of the Hocking Hills State Park (FOHHSP) took notice and championed the cause. With the support of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the FOHHSP's perseverance in their fundraising efforts, the John Glenn Astronomy Park (JGAP) was finally built and inaugurated in 2018. I am grateful that M+A Architects has given me the opportunity to turn this idea into reality. I was able to put Brad's concepts to paper, through permits and through construction.
JGAP's mission is not only to promote a gateway to science through educational programs, but mainly, to share the night sky with people. A dark sky provides a connection through space and time with our ancestors, who viewed much the same night sky we do and wondered what it was. They connected the starry dots, giving them shapes and meaning, created myths to try to explain what happened on Earth and why, and passed these stories and sense of connection down to us.
The Observatory's success was unexpected: crowds of over eight hundred people a night overwhelmed the small parking lot, neighboring grass fields, volunteers and the park's roads. This shows that there was a need and hunger for that kind of experience. People were willing to slow down and reconnect with the night sky, to share that with their children, to have a technology detox, not minding the very limited cellular connection throughout the park. JGAP has since developed a system for visitors to reserve a parking space. This not only makes for a safer environment for pedestrians, but also gives more people shorter waits to look through the telescopes.
I suspect that the total solar eclipse, which passed over a large swath of the US in 2017, resulted in a fairly large new crop of umbraphiles. From now on, astrotourism is certainly going to widen its market. Most places that cater to astrotourism are, by the very nature of their existence, environmentally aware of their possible impact. They understand the need to preserve their attractions in order to market to and attract their discerning public.
There are incredible and very creative ideas some hotels came up with to provide the experience sought by a growing number of tourists, including a "hotel room" on a sled, with a glass ceiling to allow views of the Northern Lights in Norway. Interestingly, studies noting consumer behavioral patterns show millennial parents are increasingly looking for immersive entertainment experiences for their families. Astrotourism no longer caters to astronomy enthusiasts alone.
This sense of communion with nature, with mankind throughout history, time and across countries, and perhaps even a spiritual connection with the Universe, are all part of what we are. If all it takes is to look up to get us there, it is worth it.
by LUCIA HOEHNE
Project Coordinator II
Originally achieving her architectural license in Brazil, Lucia's skills and knowledge are as diverse, as they are expansive. Lucia is passionate and thoughtful. She's actually a self-proclaimed geek at heart. She enjoys reading, writing, and constantly learning new things.