Which state has the clearest sky?
Chile wants to attract tourists with the starry sky
Not only professional astronomers know that the Chilean sky is one of the clearest and darkest in the world. A new branch of industry has long since developed: astrotourism. In tourist hotspots, such as the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, evening star tours are a standard item on the program for visitors. Professional observatories also open their doors, albeit mostly during the day. The importance of astrotourism is recognized by the Chilean economy: The state-financed association for production promotion Corfo launched the Astroturismo Chile project last year.
The goal: to promote and advertise Chilean astrotourism in order to become a globally relevant player in this rapidly growing field, explains Corfo director Mauricio Rebolledo. According to Rebolledo, around 70 percent of the global astronomical observation capacity of terrestrial observatories will concentrate on his country by 2020: the European giant telescope E-ELT, the US Giant Magellan Telescope and the Cherenkov Telescope Array for observing high-energy gamma radiation are the flagship products. A development that should also stimulate astrotourism.
Astroturismo Chile has now examined its supply and demand in a survey. According to this, around 430,000 people pursued an astronomical activity in 2014 - be it by visiting a planetarium, a public or private research observatory or by taking part in a guided star tour. This number also includes school classes and other domestic groups, which together made up about 72 percent of these astrotourists.
This also explains why more than half of all astrotourism activities were carried out in the metropolitan area of the capital Santiago - an area with high levels of light and air pollution that foreign tourists tend to get to know while passing through. Among these, the Americans formed the largest group with 17 percent, followed by the Brazilians with 14 percent and the Germans with 13 percent. At least 23 percent of the foreign visitors stated that their trip to Chile was motivated by the opportunity to get to know the country's starry sky.
According to the Corfo survey, small and medium-sized companies dominate Chilean astrotourism on the supply side. There are different providers here: international and national observatories as well as public tourist observatories, the range of which is similar to that of local public observatories. In addition, there are private commercial and non-commercial observatories, planetariums, museums, as well as hotels and tour operators with astrotouristic offer. With 20 and 45 percent respectively, the latter two are numerically the strongest. Around 85 percent of the astrotourists also stated that they had no or at most basic knowledge of astronomy. On the one hand, this means that astrotourism can be more than a niche industry. On the other hand, the offer is likely to concentrate on this large group of casual astronomers, while advanced amateur astronomers tend to play a secondary role.
The development of the astrotourism market is an exceptional opportunity for Chile to make the country's starry sky a world-famous brand, says Loreto Navarrete, head of the Astroturismo Chile project. However, it is well known that an increased influx of tourists also has negative effects on this very sky: Astrotourists also need hotels, shops, streets and other entertainment options. And they need electricity - and light. Light pollution is no longer a foreign word even in the Chilean Atacama Desert. The night sky over particularly frequented regions, such as the Valle de Elqui, which is popular for its wine-growing and where a large number of observatories are located, is no longer as originally dark as many travelers hope it will be. An increase in tourism can exacerbate this development.
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