Utah has a bright future because of dark skies, and some proponents of astrotourism want more people to become enlightened about its economic opportunities.
During a recent virtual discussion about astrotourism, speakers noted that Utah currently has two communities and 16 park locations that have been certified by the International Dark Sky Places Association but also has many other sites that could benefit economically by attracting people who want to look to the heavens.
“About 80 percent of the world’s population is under light-polluted skies and can no longer see the Milky Way from where they live,” said Aubrey Larsen, community development specialist at Department of Workforce Services’ Community Development Office. “We know it’s concentrated in more populated areas such as Los Angeles, but there are also regions such as where we are here the Intermountain West that still have relatively dark skies and opportunities to benefit from the conservation of those dark skies.”
Flint Timmins, destination development specialist at the Utah Office of Tourism, said true dark skies are increasingly a rarity. Pockets exist in the West, including the Colorado Plateau, which includes the southeastern part of Utah.
“They are something that people aren’t familiar with, and it’s something that really will be very exciting to people who haven’t been able to see that,” Timmins said.
Larsen said those areas have a “secret sauce” for optimal night sky viewing. The ingredients include high elevations; low precipitation; a high number of cloudless days; clear and unpolluted air; low population densities; dramatic landscapes; worldwide visibility; a high concentration of parks; a large amount of public lands; and proactive people, places and policies.
While Utah does have areas afflicted with light pollution — the Wasatch Front, the St. George areas and the Uinta Basin — conserving dark skies can result in energy savings, increased property values and increased astronomy-based tourism and recreation, Larsen said.
An early 2020 study by Missouri State University on the economic impact on Colorado Plateau astrotourism and dark skies indicated that astrotourism is projected to generate over $5.8 billion in economic activity over the next decade. It is expected to support 10,000 new jobs, for a total of 113,000 jobs.
“A lot of this comes from visitation to dark skies-protected places in the national park system (NPS) and the state park system,” Timmins said, “but there’s no reason why the economic benefits can’t also extend to non-NPS or state park system units. It can extend to each of our individual businesses and services and communities.”
Speakers said communities that want to take advantage of dark skies need a desire to promote night sky tourism, community buy-in and infrastructure to support increased overnight tourism, among others. They can get started by using outdoor LED lighting and passing outdoor lighting ordinances. Such an ordinance does not mean having no lights but instead having the right light at the right time in the right place and pointing down, they said.
A great benefit of astrotourism is that the typical customer must stay overnight, typically at local lodging. Among Utah businesses that have cashed-in on the growing trend are an RV campground near Kanab that has dark sky-compliant lighting and a lodge in Ogden Valley that has a built-in observatory and offers star parties and other viewing opportunities.
“Think about how differentiating that is from other type of lodging opportunities and how exciting that might be to a visitor who has never seen the night skies before,” Timmins said.
Communities can shine a light on their nighttime opportunities as an addition to daytime park visits, but they need to reach potential visitors early, during their trip planning. “There are people who will travel specifically to see dark skies, specifically here in Utah, but for a lot of folks it’s really an opportunity on top of something they’re already planning to do,” Timmins said.
“Astrotourism, at its broadest, can be a great value-added product to any typical service that a tourism or leisure or hospitality business can offer, and there are so many ways that we can incorporate astrotourism in it and a lot of reasons why, and not just economic.”
He predicted astrotourists will be a growing segment of Utah’s visitor population, “so the more we can offer and cater to this, I think, the better we’ll be here in Utah.”
While Utah does have some areas with light pollution, that pollution is both easy to cause and to remediate, he added.
“Astrotourism and dark skies are really easy to incorporate because we have this great public asset up in the sky,” Timmins said, “and so [by] reducing the light pollution we give off, we have immediate access to this great resource.”
The webinar was part of the Summit Speaker Series, an extension of the Utah Outdoor Recreation Summit and presented by the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, in partnership with Snowsports Industries America (SIA), the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah) and the Utah Outdoor Association (UOA).
Another webinar, titled “Dark Skies of the West: The Final Frontier,” takes place Jan. 13 at 2 p.m. It is presented by the Western Night Skies Council, the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region Initiative and the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative. Details are at https://usu-edu.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZEsce2qqjIrEtxxqjeq8EH0HK9J6uIsgxD1.