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Image credit: NPS / Will Pedro
753 words / 3-minute read
In January 2022 we wrote here about 'astrotourism', a kind of night-sky themed ecotourism, was "on the rise". The intervening year has seen this industry grow by leaps and bounds around the world. As the COVID-19 pandemic fades, people are hungry to see the world again and experience new adventures. For many who have never seen a starry night sky, an astrotourism experience fits the bill.
There are a few places in the world where this mode of tourism is already well developed. For example, the Mackenzie region of New Zealand has a thriving local astrotourism industry. Many places have the right mix of dark night skies and daytime allure, but few have achieved such success. Those that do stand to gain much in the way of economic development, particularly in rural and economically depressed areas.
The U.S. state of Utah is one of the exceptions. While famous as a winter playground for the "greatest snow on earth", tourists now flock to the Beehive State for other reasons. According to the Utah Office of Tourism, dark skies now have a higher public and media uptake than skiing. The magic of dark night skies above, with the celebrated beauty of the Utah landscapes and its vast public lands below, is a strong visitor enticement. That is especially true for families with children who have never experienced the splendor of the stars.
In a sense, the modern idea of astronomy-themed tourism started in this part of the world. In 1969, formal stargazing programs were first offered to the public at Bryce Canyon National Park. As word of the region's night skies spread, early efforts to commercialize the experience took root. Opportunities available to Utah astrotourists now run the gamut from guided, small-group stargazing to astronomy-themed river running and 'glamping' experiences.
While its full economic value to the state has yet to be quantified, there are reasons to think that Utah is already benefitting. One study, published in 2019, predicted that astrotourism will account for $6 billion worth of economic activity in the region during the 2020s. The surge in post-pandemic tourism means that number is probably on the low side of what's possible.
Utah ranks number one with more accredited International Dark Sky Places than any other state or province in the world. Its dry climate and often favorable weather yield some of the finest night skies in the developed world. Travelers come to Utah from heavily light polluted places such as the East and West U.S. coasts, Europe and Asia to experience this firsthand.
The government of Utah has taken notice, and it has begun to incorporate dark skies into the state's branding. For example, the Utah Governor has declared April as Utah Dark Sky Month for the past two years. And beginning in 2023 the state will offer a themed license plate to motorists. When seen during their travels to other states, it serves as an advertisement attracting more tourism.
An early design concept for the Utah dark-sky specialty license plate, making its debut in 2023.
Officials have come to recognize astrotourism as one of the most profitable sectors in the ecotourism industry. While famous for its "Mighty 5" U.S. National Parks set among the stunning scenery of southern Utah, daytime-only visits have a milder economic impact. Realizing that "half the park is after dark", astrotourism activities in and near the Mighty 5 offer further recreation opportunities to visitors. This not only adds significant value to visitor experiences, but it means more revenue for tourism operators and local governments alike. Even one night spent stargazing adds an overnight stay and two meals to a visitor's tab. This represents a highly profitable proposition.
The state's Office of Tourism developed a well-considered dark sky toolkit, debuting in 2022. One segment of that toolkit, "An Industry Guide To Astrotourism," offers a particularly powerful set of guidance and resources. As the field becomes increasingly professionalized, this level of state support helps bring new operators into the industry. It also grows a local knowledge base that can help with the development of new tourism products.
Utah has become a best-practice model for the economic development possibilities of astrotourism. It provides clear, actionable information to interested communities and their affiliated DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations). To this it adds branded marketing elements that reinforce a strong connection between Utah outdoor recreation and night skies. The result is a recipe for success to which people in other parts of the world now look as an example to guide their own local efforts. Dark-sky tourism now has a bright future, and Utah leads the way.