Dark skies are on the rise, as travelers across the planet seek out places where they can get clear views of the stars. So say the travel experts at Lonely Planet who have named dark skies a continuing travel trend. As the world’s first International Dark Sky Community, Flagstaff and others in Northern Arizona are tapping into the astrotourism trend.
“Flagstaff provides amazing dark skies for stargazing, and more and more people will travel to our destination to enjoy Lowell Observatory, star parties and an evening out under the night skies,” said Meg Roederer, communications specialist at Discover Flagstaff, which is part of the Economic Vitality Division of the City of Flagstaff.
“Strategic marketing by Discover Flagstaff to capture the astrotourism trend is evidenced most recently by the Flagstaff Lunar Legacy campaign,” explained Roederer. The campaign, which earned the 2019 Governor’s Tourism Award for Outstanding Tourism Partnership – Rural, resulted in a 3.5% increase to the city’s Bed, Board and Beverage tax collection over the span of the program. Additionally, Flagstaff hoteliers saw a rise of 2.9% in revenue per available room (RevPAR) during the Flagstaff Lunar Legacy campaign.
“More people are seeking out the night sky,” said Jeff Hall, director of Lowell Observatory. The Flagstaff resident helps lead the charge on dark skies protection as the chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference and Space Debris. Hall and the committee recently met with SpaceX representatives in Hawaii to discuss the effects of satellite constellations. “It’s a brave new world up there that is lightly regulated,” said Hall.
On the other hand, here in Northern Arizona, the Lowell director applauded the long-time and “outstanding dark sky protection by the city and county.”
Flagstaff started the dark sky protection movement in 1958 with the adoption of the world’s first outdoor lighting regulation specifically to protect the night sky. It began another movement for the recognition of dark sky places in 2001 when it became the World’s First International Dark Sky City, a designation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
Meeting Demands from Visitors Seeking Dark Skies
To continue to expand educational opportunities for the general public and attract visitors to more dark sky experiences, Lowell Observatory recently unveiled the Giovale Open Deck Observatory. The public observation plaza features a suite of educational exhibits and six advanced telescopes that allow guests to view celestial objects in different ways.
Currently at Lowell’s Mars Hill campus, more than 100,000 visitors attend historical tours, science presentations and telescope viewing each year. That number is expected to grow. Lowell reported “record visitation” in 2019 when it announced that it was receiving a $14.5 million grant, half the funds needed to build its new “Astronomy Discovery Center.” The expansion, set to open in 2023, increases the observatory’s public education capacity to more than 250,000 guests per year, according to a press release.
Millions in Economic Impact on Arizona’s Economy
Astronomy – including astrotourism – has a significant impact on Arizona’s economy, according to a 2006 economic impact study by the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. The report found that astronomy, planetary and space sciences research impacted the state’s economy by $252 million annually. One of the primary sources of economic impact was capital investments and spending by visitors. Included in those measurements was spending by guest scholars and visitors of planetariums, observatories and specialty museums.
“Arizona is the astrotourism capital of the United States with the most certified IDA Dark Sky places anywhere else in the world,” said Roederer. What’s more, Northern Arizona’s high concentration of IDA Dark Sky places allows visitors a wide-ranging choice of natural dark sky experiences.
After Flagstaff received the IDA Dark Sky Community designation, Sedona, Village of Oak Creek, Cottonwood Camp Verde followed suit. Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation on the Arizona-Utah border is the world’s first IDA Dark Sky Nation. IDA International Dark Sky Parks in Northern Arizona include Grand Canyon National Park (NP), Petrified Forest NP, Dead Horse State Park, Wupatki National Monument (NM), Sunset Crater NM and Walnut Canyon NM.
Local hotels have also stepped up to the expanding trend by offering packages that include dark sky stargazing. Visitors to Sedona take advantage of L’auberge De Sedona’s “Written in the Stars,” which provides dinner under the stars, weather permitting, and bedside star cookies with milk. Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock hosts free stargazing on Fridays for guests of the resort or their Shadowrock Tap + Table restaurant. Yavapai Lodge at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon provides tools to locate and identify constellations in the “Constellations at the Canyon” package. (visitgrandcanyon.com/yavapai-lodge/lodge-packages-specials.)
“I sense that the connection with the natural world – including naturally dark night skies – is an unmet or ‘under-met’ need for many people,” said Christian Luginbuhl, co-founder of Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition and the annual Flagstaff Star Party. “That need, I believe, is under-appreciated for its economic and environmental value by communities and businesses that could benefit from serving people seeking to connect to the universe around them.”
Evidence that dark skies are on the rise includes the recent publication of travelers guides such as Lonely Planet’s “Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism” by Valerie Stimac. Likewise, listeners continue to tune into StarDate – the longest running, nationally broadcasted science program. Each day, more than 300 stations, including KNAU Arizona Public Radio, offer stories about astronomy, the night sky and the universe. Also, apps such as Light Pollution Map – Dark Sky and Astronomy Tools and MeteoEarth have more than 100 thousand downloads from those seeking dark skies.
“Discover Flagstaff will continue to create awareness of our dark skies to motivate travel, evidenced by the 2020 Flagstaff Visitor Guide showcasing a cover image of the San Francisco Peaks with shining stars in the night sky welcoming visitors,” Roederer concluded. FBN
By Stacey Wittig, FBN