Written in the stars: Great Barrier Island counting on astro-tourism

The much rarer status of Sanctuary is reserved for places with exceptionally dark skies. Source: Shutterstock

CHANGE is forecast for Great Barrier Island in New Zealand as focus shifts to astro-tourism following a successful application for Dark Sky Sanctuary status.

The certification is awarded by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) under the Dark Places Program. Through the initiative, the IDA works with local communities and enthusiasts to protect and preserve the world’s most fragile nocturnal environments from the scourge of light pollution.

As a result, 11 areas worldwide are currently designated as Dark Sky Reserves. However, the much rarer status of Sanctuary is reserved for places with exceptionally dark skies. It is held only by three: AURA Observatory in Chile, Cosmic Campground in the US, and now Great Barrier Island.

Natural nightscape

The Great Barrier Island, which lies in the outer Hauraki Gulf, has near-perfect conditions for stargazing because it is entirely off-grid and has minimal outside night lighting, the main source of light pollution which reduces star visibility.

Dark sky enthusiast Richard Somerville-Ryan, as quoted in an article for ATEED, says, “Our measurements showed what we had all suspected – the Great Barrier Island skies are as good as it gets.”

The island also receives little light interference from elsewhere as the closest city – Auckland – is 62 miles (almost 100km) away on the North Island of New Zealand.

Together these factors ensure necessary levels of darkness can be maintained for a spectacular nightscape.

“It’s like an immense glow worm grotto,” said Local Board chairman Izzy Fordham, speaking to Morning Report (via nzgeo.com). “You can see so many different stars, constellations, Milky Way. It’s an absolute delight,” she said.

Starstruck astro-tourists

Visitors may be content to cast their gaze skyward to enjoy the starry spectacle, but the Local Board wants to enhance the experience and maximize the area’s appeal.

According to the application submitted to the IDA, plans are underway to create 25 official viewing points, each receiving a night sky star rating. A number of sites with public access are under consideration, including Kaitoke Beach and Port Fitzroy.

🐋 #portfitzroy#fishingspot#sealink#greatbarrierisland#hiking#northislandnz#haurakigulf#newzealand

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Hoteliers, too, are considering the specific needs of stargazers. The New Zealand Herald reports there may be more telescopes installed across the island, something that could become a standard feature at accommodations.

Shining future ahead

It is early days, but the mood is optimistic. This is partly because the nearby Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve on New Zealand’s South Island continues to report rising visitor numbers – a strong indicator of astro-tourism’s popularity in the region.

Confident their offering is just as good, it is hoped like Aoraki Mackenzie, Dark Sky tourism will bring year-round visitors to the island.

If the predictions made in the sanctuary status application are accurate, then tourism growth could spur demand in related industries such as hospitality, creating new jobs for residents.

Importantly though, if visitor patterns adjust as expected, more of these may be permanent positions rather than seasonal as is currently the case. Local people could, therefore, see more money in their pockets as well as an overall boost to the island’s economy.