Monday, February 12, 2018

The Dark Night Sky Of Tourism

"The dark night sky is the underlying resource," explains a piece of worthy research. A definition of "underlying" is real but not immediately obvious. I would suggest that the dark night sky is more than underlying when it comes to astronomical tourism. Without the dark night sky there is no astronomical tourism.

The resource itself is abundant. It is theoretically infinite. The dark night sky as with the light day sky is always there in its unfathomable vastness. The resource is, however, greater - or rather better - in different parts of the globe, especially if someone has taken the trouble to advance the cause for its particular dark night sky resource. Here is where underlying enters the adjective-noun conjunction. The resource is certainly real but its status as better is not immediately obvious until it is explained that it is better.

Astronomical tourism is a segment of the tourism market, a niche product. It has existed for centuries, if one cares to define travellers who have wanted to search the dark night skies as tourists. They went to Stonehenge, at least in part, to wonder at the dark night sky. Ancient skies of an English summer might not have been habitually clouded. They most certainly were not affected by light pollution, and nowadays the absence of this pollution holds the key to unlocking the niche potential of the dark night sky and of astronomical tourism.

Mallorca has (or had) an underlying resource other than its dark night sky. One day we might know what really occurred at the observatory in Costitx. What we can say is that it was a resource which was woefully underexploited. It was managed well as a scientific resource but was mismanaged in terms of its tangential potential. Administrations must share the blame. And in this day and age of sustainable tourism, they have missed an almighty trick. The sky is sustainability writ very large. Tourism attracted by the sky is respectful of one of the greatest resources known to mankind.

The Starlight Foundation explains the various dimensions to its activities. One is economic: "To boost the economy through the contemplation and interpretation of the starry sky, promoting infrastructure, products and activities in the field of sustainable tourism which we call 'star tourism'." Starry, starry night; every astronomical tourist is a star.

The Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC) was founded in 1982. A Spanish public research institution, it is an international benchmark for astrophysics, advanced scientific instrumentation, university education and the cultural dissemination of science. There are observatories in Tenerife (the Teide Observatory) and in La Palma (the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory).

In 2012, the Starlight Foundation, a body that was created by the IAC, recognised La Palma as the first Starlight destination on the planet. There are now others. In the Canaries, the dark night skies - away from the urban centres - are unrivalled for their clarity. The foundation and the IAC might have seemed to have been somewhat self-serving in accrediting La Palma as they did six years ago, but to qualify as "Starlight" there is a requirement to be able to observe the stars in optimal conditions while at the same time being an example of environmental protection and conservation, including protecting the environment from artificial light pollution.

At the Madrid Fitur tourism fair in January, La Palma received a new distinction. It was deemed to be the "best active tourism product"; active as in tourists undertaking an activity - stargazing in this instance. Above all, La Palma - and this is the whole island - was given the award because of the public and private sector collaboration which has enabled the island to become Spain's foremost destination for astronomical tourism; not only Spain's, one of the world's foremost.

Mark the words of Inés Jiménez, the councillor for tourism in Gran Canaria, where they also pursue astronomical star tourism. Various municipalities and the whole business sector - large and small - have come together in not only appreciating that the island is for tourism but also has an "alternative product to sun and beach". The Canaries, admittedly benefiting from the backing that goes back to the 1980s, have made a sustainable tourism virtue of their dark night skies. Not so Mallorca; not so the Balearics.

The Canaries are not alone. In Castile-La Mancha, there is a multi-municipality cooperation project that has created an astronomical park - Serrania de Cuenca. Work has started on certifying as Starlight a new park in the Valle del Alcudia. This is an Alcudia in the Ciudad Real province, not an Alcudia in Mallorca.

Cordoba, Aragon, Navarre, Extremadura; here are other parts of Spain where the underlying resource of dark night skies has been developed to beneficial effect, and all in the name of sustainable tourism. In Mallorca, meanwhile, they seek to blame each other for the loss of what was a real resource.

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