While the availability of space travel currently comes with a hefty price tag, it’s still possible to explore our universe while staying foot on Earth through astrotourism. Oakland-based space tourism expert Valerie Stimac is the author of “Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism” (Lonely Planet, September 2019), a comprehensive book that explains how to see the next decade of total solar eclipses, the aurora and rocket launches, lists dark-sky sites and national parks and gives the lowdown on commercial space flight, observatories and meteor showers.
In timing with the book’s release on September 17, 2019, Stimac spoke with Forbes about astrotourism and how this section of travel is more than merely looking up at the sky.
What inspired your interest in astrotourism? What makes this subject fascinating to you?
Valerie Stimac: My interest in astrotourism was inspired in childhood, growing up in Alaska. I had the chance to see the Northern Lights often while growing up, and remember viewing the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. As an adult and travel writer, I came back to space as the last great destination we will explore in my lifetime, and once I started thinking about space as a “destination,” I realized there were all these amazing ways to experience it right here on earth.
How would you explain astrotourism to someone? In addition to your book, how can a traveler start out in learning more about it and potentially booking a related trip?
Stimac: Astrotourism is traveling for space-related experiences here on earth. It might mean going stargazing in a new place with great dark skies, traveling to see the northern lights or an eclipse, or even going to watch a rocket launch. If it’s something you’re interested in, the best thing to do is Google great stargazing spots near where you live. An easy overnight or weekend trip is a good way to learn more about astronomy and decide if this kind of travel is what you really love. (Don’t forget to bundle up as it’s almost always chilly at night when stargazing!).
How do you find astrotourism being marketed within the tourism sector?
Stimac: The tourism sector has been enthusiastic about astrotourism, when there’s a relevant event, such as the Apollo 11 50th anniversary or a solar eclipse – but outside of that, it’s been somewhat lacking. I’m excited to see major destinations have taken up this cause (for example, New Zealand and Scotland have both begun promoting their dark skies) in addition to those smaller destinations who are already promoting it.
Are there any misconceptions about astrotourism?
Stimac: Fortunately, there aren’t many! There are a lot more misconceptions about space tourism, which is a section we included in the book. People are dismissive of space tourism because it hasn’t started yet, and the first flights will be exceptionally expensive. However, like all destinations, the cost will come down over time, and people will be surprised by how quickly it takes off (space pun!) and how much interest there is.
In conducting research for “Dark Skies,” how did you source and compile its featured destinations and recommended tips? Which listed places have you been to so far and which ones are you planning to see in the near future?
Stimac: I worked with my Lonely Planet editor Nora Rawn to generate the list of places that we included in the book. Some of my favorites from the book, which I’ve visited, include Wadi Rum in Jordan, Iceland and the Elqui Valley in Chile. Future ones on my list include Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses in Brazil (fun trivia: this is the planet “Vormir” in the Avengers Infinity War/Endgame movies) and Uluru in Australia.
I see what the destinations listed in your book are suggested to go in timing with a scheduled event. What advice do you have for a traveler looking to plan such a trip?
Stimac: Great question. Without going into specifics or too much detail, the most important thing is to understand where and when the astronomical phenomena will be visible (such as the path of an eclipse or what time of day a meteor shower will be visible), and then to book ahead if you want to stay overnight in that area. Astrotourism is increasingly popular; for example, the 2019 total solar eclipse across Chile and Argentina had some hotels fully booked over a year in advance.
Besides your book, what other resources can travelers turn to for learning more about astrotourism?
Stimac: I run a website called Space Tourism Guide, where we produce astrotourism resources that complement and add additional information beyond what the book could offer. As far as I know, we’re the only resource focusing exclusively on astrotourism, but you can also find occasional articles from some of the other great travel publications if you’re googling about a specific topic (like night sky events this month or great places to watch upcoming meteor showers).