What is it like working in astrotourism?

Many people feel passionate about maintaining access to dark nighttime skies. Being able to see the stars reminds humanity of its place in the universe and informs our fundamental worldviews. There are many ways to engage with dark skies. One interesting way is from a business perspective. To learn more about working in the astrotourism industry, we spoke with Adrien Vilquin Barrajon, the Guiding Operations Manager at Dark Sky Project in New Zealand. Dark Sky Project is located in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.

What is Dark Sky Project and how does it relate to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve?

Dark Sky Project is a Lake Tekapō-based company. We are proudly regarded as leaders in astrotourism and stargazing experiences. We were formerly known as Earth & Sky Stargazing, founded in 2004 by locals and night sky enthusiasts Graeme Murray and Hide Ozawa. They were early advocates for formally recognizing and protecting the skies of the region. The area was awarded dark sky reserve status in June 2012. Today, it remains the largest dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere.

What are some of the more popular services or experiences that you offer to help connect people to dark skies?

We offer two different nighttime tours and one daytime one. Our first nighttime tour is the Summit experience atop the University of Canterbury’s Mount John observatory. During the first part of the tour, our guides lead a naked eye approach to the night sky, explaining concepts such as distances and celestial navigation. For the second half, the tour moves to our observing area where customers, with the help of guides, have the chance to observe the wonders of the deep sky through telescopes of different sizes and up to 16 inches in aperture.

The second nighttime tour, the Crater experience, runs at our private Cowan’s Hill observatory. There, three craters have been dug out with the purpose of creating the perfect sheltered environment for stargazing. During this tour, our customers benefit from pristine skies and telescopes up to 14 inches in aperture.

The daytime tour is called Dark Sky Experience and takes place at our main building in Lake Tekapō. Customers follow our guides on a scientific and cultural indoor tour during which they learn about the Māori approach to the night sky. They also get the chance to visit the world-renowned Brashear telescope.

Why do you personally think it is important for humanity to have access to dark skies?

Humanity’s history is deeply interwoven with the night sky. The stars have inspired religion, culture, and science. The sky is a powerful source of inspiration that connects us to nature and a cosmic perspective. In a time when we have become a planetary civilization, I believe it is important to reflect on who we are and how we got here. The night sky offers us an inescapable perspective. It unites us together as living creatures on the surface of a single planet, orbiting an average star in some forgotten corner of a galaxy full of billions of stars.

To me, seeing the stars and realizing this connection is a powerful and humbling experience, one which I believe should be accessible to all. There are of course important considerations in terms of human health and light pollution’s detrimental impacts on other species when it comes to keeping nighttime skies dark. Having access to dark skies is, moreover, imperative to ensure we retain our ancient connection to the stars and to nature. Such access helps us learn and grow and guides us into a better future.