Astrotourism resembles other popular forms of tourism like adventure travel and wildlife viewing but is more eco-friendly compared to them, while also creating local employment opportunities.
Amateur astronomers have evolved into successful astro-entrepreneurs, hosting events for tourists at commercial rates and offering cross-subsidy models to reach markets that might otherwise remain untapped.
1. Dark Sky Reserves
Essentially, a Dark Sky Reserve is a place with policies in place to safeguard and conserve the night sky’s natural splendor and beauty. These include policies such as reducing artificial light pollution, making celestial bodies like the moon and stars easier to see, educating visitors about appreciating night skies in general, as well as promoting astronomy tourism and creating jobs within local communities. A Dark Sky Reserve also helps local economies by providing revenue sources and jobs creation.
As part of its efforts to expand astronomy tourism, Ladakh Union Territory administration recently designated India’s inaugural Dark Sky Reserve at Hanle Village in Eastern Ladakh – within Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary which also houses India Astronomical Observatory. The 1,073 sq km space offers excellent conditions for stargazing tourism.
Hanle Observatory stands at 4,500 metres above sea level and enjoys cloudless skies with low atmospheric disturbance, providing ideal conditions for using telescopes by astronomers. It is anticipated that its new observatory will draw many enthusiasts and align itself with India’s impressive space achievements.
This reserve will foster the spread of astronomy among young people as well as increase scientific tourism in Ladakh. Furthermore, economic development will be promoted in Hanle and its surrounding villages through this venture. Earlier this year, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics at Bengaluru signed a three-way MoU with Hanle observatory to establish a high altitude astronomy center – which would become India’s second highest optical telescope – at Hanle.
As part of its initiative, IIA purchased 24 basic telescopes and distributed them to select villagers within the reserve for use as Astronomy Ambassadors for tourists. As Dorje Angchuk from Hanle Observatory explained: this initiative will benefit everyone. Through funding from the UT administration, they have taught basic sky gazing techniques including constellation identification and pinpointing. “With funding from them (UT administration), we taught basic sky gazing methods including identification and localizing the pole star.”
Coimbatore students were treated to an incredible view of the Milky Way and other celestial bodies during a recent trip to Hanle. One young student, Akshay Sathish, recalls that every inch of sky was filled with stars and star clusters; for him it was “magical experience”.
Astro tourism is a new travel trend where travellers seek out locations with pollution-free skies to enjoy stargazing and take photographs of the Milky Way. Though well established in Western cultures, this idea has recently begun making inroads into India through declaration of dark sky reserves in places such as Hanle in Ladakh and construction of astro parks like Benital in Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh villages like Benital – even government bodies have caught wind of it: Rajasthan’s Department of Science and Technology hosts stargazing events while Uttarakhand have created an Astro Village at Phyang in Uttarakhand to further stimulate this idea’s popularity.
Jantar Mantar is one of India’s best-known observatories thanks to Rajput king Jai Singh II’s ingenuity in building five observatories around Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and Jaipur. Jantar Mantar literally means “instruments to calculate,” with these instruments used for measuring star and planet movements in the sky. There are however other observatories with lesser-known histories which still amaze and inspire.
Domestic travellers are also increasingly drawn to observatories as part of their domestic travel experiences, with families eager to discover the night sky together. Astrotourism is especially popular in remote and undeveloped regions which boast dark skies free of light pollution from cities, towns or villages; such destinations also host celestial events like eclipses or meteor showers.
Experience centres have also emerged to provide astronomy activities. Astro camps teach children fundamentals of physics, chemistry, biology and math through hands-on activities; several of these events are hosted by schools or NGOs to foster an interest in space exploration, particularly among girls.
Astrotourism in India is growing increasingly popular through specialised accommodation like astro homestays. Sonal Asgotraa of Astrostays, located in Maan Village in Ladakh, reports a 30-to-40% rise in people opting for this form of lodging since travel resumed after the pandemic.
3. Experience Centres
Astronomy is one of the few subjects that can draw the interest and participation of people from diverse backgrounds, making it an ideal candidate for experiential marketing. Brands looking to differentiate themselves and leave an indelible mark on consumers must look beyond hard-sell tactics in favour of immersive spaces that allow customers to socialize, discover, mingle and truly experience and relate to the brand in question.
Starscapes, a cosmic-themed experience centre, gives visitors the chance to build rockets, spot constellations in the night sky, model sundials and cameras, learn about their science behind them and much more. Starscapes currently has centres in Kausani and Bhimtal with more planned as of 2022; each experience designed to demystify astronomy for newcomers while being led by trained and experienced astronomers who explain its intricacies.
Resorts and hotels are increasingly offering astronomy-based experiences to their guests. Sariska’s treetop astronomy resort sits within what is classified as Class 4 space on the Bortle scale, giving visitors incredible views of the Milky Way; wildlife tours also take guests through this protected reserve’s dense forests and rugged cliffs. Similar astrotourism offerings have also been established in Jaisalmer and Bundi.
Sonal Asgotraa, founder of Astrostays – offering accommodation to tourists visiting Ladakh villages Maan and Phyang for astronomy tours – believes this trend has been furthered by organisations like the International Dark Association working to reduce light pollution through dark sky reserves and parks as well as recent pop culture influencers such as movies like Interstellar. She also points to an increasing interest among kids as a career choice with more colleges providing undergraduate courses in fields like astrophysics and aerospace engineering.
People now don’t need to travel as far-off locations like Hanle or Benital just to indulge in astrotourism in India; thanks to observatories, dark sky reserves, experience centres, and observatories opening across India, people can now engage with this hobby locally – observatories can now open at hill stations or beach towns so aspiring astronomers can even open their own observatory in nearby hills stations or beach towns!
4. Dark Sky Places
Astrotourism has seen significant progress over time due to the efforts of amateur astronomers who have transformed themselves into “Astro-entrepreneurs”, offering events for schools and the general public at a fee. Furthermore, they operate observatories and experience centres which provide celestial experiences without needing expensive equipment – thus significantly lowering entry barriers to Astro tourism compared to what was required previously. Still much needs to be done for it become mainstream including supporting voluntary efforts as well as individual start-ups; providing different financial models; reaching underrepresented groups while also addressing challenges faced within this sector
At one time, stargazing required extensive travel and investment in equipment to experience. Now however, this experience can be found right near your holiday destination. From hill stations such as Mukteshwar and Madikeri in Karnataka to seaside towns like Goa and Pondicherry with state-of-the-art telescopes installed at observatories or experience centers – Astro tourists now see the skies as their frontier!
Astrotourism has caught the attention of various government bodies as well, who are supporting its expansion by creating observatory-based experiences like Rajasthan’s running camps in remote locations such as Sariska Tiger Reserve; while Uttarakhand government supports private organisations that conduct outreach programs in this field.
India’s inaugural Astro-tourism Destination has been recognized as an official Dark Sky Reserve, located near Hanle village in Ladakh. Situated at an elevation of 4,500m in a cluster of six hamlets (Bhok, Shado, Punguk, Khuldo and Naga refugee habitations inside Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary), this one of the highest dark sky reserves globally and its cloudless skies with low atmospheric water vapour make it the perfect environment to observe celestial bodies.