Imagine yourself on a clear night, away from the city centre, gazing up at a velvety canopy studded with millions of sparkling, far-off suns.
Well, imagining that scene is often the closest we get to that cosmic vista. Whether it’s due to our hectic lives, cloudy skies or an excess of artificial light, our chances of seeing more than a handful of the brightest stars are, shall we say, dim. In our normal lives, that is – cue stargazing holidays, or astrotourism as it’s commonly known!
As I was growing up, the main way to go stargazing in company was to join a local astronomy group – still a great way option for long-term enthusiasts, by the way. Apart from a couple of specialist tour operators, the travel industry was oblivious to the appeal of dark skies as a leisure draw. But things are changing fast, and astrotourism is one of the cool travel trends of the last few years. Even with the recent tourism downturn caused by Covid, the potential for astrotourism continues to increase.
Here are my top ten reasons for considering a stargazing holiday.
1. The number of cosmic holiday options is now….astronomical
More organisations than ever before are offering astronomy-themed breaks, events or excursions. Northern lights cruises, eclipse trips, observatory visits, star parties or dark sky festivals, astrophotography outings, guided stargazing sessions – all of these and many other possibilities exist. There’s never been a wider selection of places, tour operators and specialist groups focusing in this area, many with expert guidance by qualified professional astronomers, experienced amateur observers or specially trained communicators.
2. Astrotourism can take place…anywhere and everywhere
The universe surrounds us, wherever we are. Stars, planets, comets, asteroids, galaxies, pulsars, supernovae, it doesn’t matter which country you’re in, the cosmos can be seen as long as the skies are clear and dark enough. Globally, destinations are cottoning on to the idea of dark skies as a resource for attracting visitors to their region, with outbound tour operators simultaneously picking up on the business potential and developing exciting itineraries in both new and established locations. Whether you’re planning a UK staycation or looking to explore further afield, every continent, and virtually every country, has something to offer.
3. Stargazing is a year-round option
There is no stargazing season as such. Even though eclipses and meteor showers occur at specific times, the Milky Way is always there to be marvelled at, whatever the time of year. Astrotourism is even being called the ‘holiday season extender’ by the travel industry, because it’s an activity that can occur just as easily in the depths of winter. In fact, it’s even better to go stargazing at this time of year because the viewing conditions are steadier, thanks to the lack of heat haze you get in the warmer months.
So if you want to avoid the travel frenzy of the summer months (and skiing isn’t quite your thing), you could consider an arctic aurora adventure or an autumn weekend stay in a cosy cottage, with some observing thrown in. Even if you are restricted to your summer season, it’ll be winter in the opposite hemisphere, so if you’re in the UK why not head to Australia or New Zealand and try your luck viewing the Southern Lights (aka Aurora Australis) instead of its more famous northern cousin?
4. The cosmos is a greater teacher than you might imagine
When we study the skies above us, we are tapping into many different subjects. Astronomy is a multi-disciplinary topic, encompassing history, geology, physics, technology, archaeology, chemistry, social skills & team work, culture, environmentalism, mythology, art and philosophy to name just those that immediately spring to mind! The benefit of this type of learning is that it’s effortless, you simply absorb knowledge whilst enjoying the stargazing experience itself. And when you incorporate all that into a well-earned break, you get the best of all worlds and come away not only refreshed, but probably smarter too!
5. Astrotourism is brilliantly suited to a combination holiday
Time off is precious, so you’ll want to make the most of it. A great way to do this is to add a second element to your stargazing break. Tour companies are coming up with increasingly creative combination tours such as gastronomy & astronomy weekends and night-time safaris, and most Northern Lights cruises will offer on-shore excursions to the sights near to port. Even on a city break you could take in a planetarium show to whet your appetite for the real thing next time. The options are there and there’s bound to be one that perfectly suits your interests.
6. The beauty of a clear night sky reconnects you with nature
As your eyes adapt to the dark, your senses are heightened. You may hear the hoot of an owl in the distance, and possibly even make out from which direction. Even the air itself has a different quality to it as the temperature drops and the moisture levels change. This is the night, not the fearful darkness of horror movies, but a beautiful, underappreciated facet of our natural environment which takes you away from the relentless buzz of modern life to a place of stillness and contemplation. Being out under the stars allows us to reconnect with the great outdoors on a primal level, and is good for our wellbeing.
7. It’s a good choice for sustainability
Sustainability is one of the most, no, the most important element in the tourism industry today bar none, and astronomy-themed tourism lends itself perfectly to the three core aspects of social, economic and environmental responsibility. It creates jobs and preserves cultural heritage whilst helping to conserve and often improve the natural environment. It’s not without its challenges, mind – take care when choosing a cruise line for the northern lights, for example, by checking out their environmental policy and selecting an operator with the best possible practices and reputation. As previously mentioned, astrotourism has the potential to generate an income during the off-season, or in destinations which are not known for their summertime appeal. This can be a great advantage for a regional economy.
8. Aurora expeditions and Eclipse trips are beyond ordinary
Pun aside, a night under the stars or seeing the Northern Lights dancing all around you is somewhat different to a standard excursion or beachside holiday. As for the uniqueness of witnessing a total eclipse of the sun, just ask any of the thousands of people who have witnessed the last few major eclipses. While there’s nothing wrong with a more commonplace break for a little r ‘n’ r, holidaymakers have increasingly been seeking more unusual and immersive travel ‘experiences’, and the type of cosmic-themed breaks we’re talking about here fit the bill perfectly.
9. You can make a positive difference in the fight against light pollution
If you live somewhere with good access to dark skies, then you’re among the fortunate 20% in the world. Bad quality or excessive lighting can obliterate our view of natural nightscapes, as well as being proved to cause disruption to wildlife and even human circadian rhythms. Fortunately, organisations such as the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) are working hard to promote smart lighting and persuade decision-makers to improve their lighting policies, thus helping to create accredited IDA Dark Sky places – of which there are several in the UK.
By engaging in astronomical tours and events, we demonstrate that dark skies are an economic commodity worth preserving. This will hopefully convince the powers-that-be to make better choices and reduce unnecessary and poorly directed lighting.
10. Because it’s awesome
There’s something about every type of sky-watching experience that evokes our sense of wonder. It gives us context and perspective as we try and grasp the scale of the universe and how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things. I’ve heard people audibly gasp as they look up at an unexpectedly dazzling skyscape full of glimmering constellations, and seen people transfixed by a vivid auroral display. Our modern lifestyles and urban habitats means that this is not such a common experience anymore, but I urge you to get out there and try some stargazing or aurora-chasing for yourself, because…well, you get the idea….it’s humbling, it’s inspirational and it’s just plain awesome.