NZ a leader in burgeoning astro-tourism industry

Earth & Sky’s observatories at Lake Tekapo. Image: Tourism New Zealand

New Zealand is a world leader in astro-tourism with more product on the way and a reputation in Asia as being one of the best places in the world to enjoy the night sky, says one of the country’s leading astronomers.

John Hearnshaw

Professor John Hearnshaw, the founder of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, said astro-tourism opportunities were transforming the region, which hosts the three-day Starlight Festival at Aoraki Mount Cook’s The Hermitage Hotel from today.

“There has been a 20% uplift in tourism visitors to the Mackenzie region since the dark sky reserve was announced in 2012 and it is now one of NZ’s top tourist attractions,” said Hearnshaw, who earlier this year received a Queen’s Birthday honour for his work in astronomy.

Mackenzie was thriving on the industry with operators providing accommodation, stargazing tours and even their own mini-observatories to cater for the demand.

“Places like Lakestone Lodge in Pukaki have some telescopes, Skyscape in Twizel has built a glass house where people can go to bed looking at the stars and Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat have built a small observatory and are showing people the stars,” said Hearnshaw.

The pleasing aspect for New Zealand was that other regions were now moving to take advantage of the opportunity the country’s dark skies offered. The latest of those was Great Barrier Island, which became a Dark Sky Sanctuary in August, after recognition by the International Dark Sky Association.

“Naseby in Central Otago wants to become a dark sky reserve and will be making its application soon and some people in Dunedin want it to become a dark sky city so, it is catching on,” said Hearnshaw.

Queenstown’s Skyline also offers night sky guided tours and Cardrona Alpine Resort has launched a stargazing product.

One of the reasons for the activity’s success has been the growth in Asian visitors to New Zealand.

“Places like China and Japan are lost causes because there is so much light pollution,” said Hearnshaw.

“It is very hard to see a star if you are in a city in that region which is one of the reasons Mackenzie is so popular with Asian tourists. They come here and see the Milky Way Galaxy for the first time and they’re stunned.”

The Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival begins today at 2pm.

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