Heavenly bodies are the stars of a new tourism draw predicted to drive a visitor boom for Martinborough.
Star Field Tours will offer a premium dark sky experience only ten minutes’ drive from the town centre at Ruakokoputuna and just an hour by train or car from Wellington.
The concept has been developed by local astronomer and astrophotographer John Whitby, who spent five years searching for the perfect site to build his observatories. The location, in the hills behind Martinborough, offers pristine skies due to the exceptionally low light pollution aided by the local topography and a dry climate.
Dark sky tourism is predicted to eclipse the popularity of the picturesque Wairarapa region’s considerable visitor charms, which include production of some of New Zealand’s finest pinot noir.
The phenomenon has grown, well, astronomically since 2001, when the International Dark-Sky Association set up a programme to award destinations working to preserve their dark skies.
According to research by the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute, 80 percent of the Earth’s land mass suffers from light pollution, while for 99 percent of people in Europe and the USA the night sky is obscured by artificial lighting.
Growing numbers of travellers are seeking out the world’s last-remaining clear and unpolluted views of the stars. Lonely Planet reports that in 2017, some seven million people travelled across the USA to see the total solar eclipse and similar pilgrimages are expected in South America this year for a similar darkening event.
J Thomas Beckett, board chair of Utah’s Clark Planetarium, told the travel guide: “A hundred thousand generations of homo sapiens before us saw the Milky Way every night. It’s in our DNA.
“But then we lit up the outdoors and literally lost sight of it. Astrotourists are reconnecting with something that has a deep, primitive meaning to humans.”
Astrotourism presents “huge potential” for the region, according to Destination Wairarapa general manager David Hancock.
“The places that stargazers look for are usually remote, but for Martinborough it is literally just over the hill from the capital city,” he told Stuff.
The Wairarapa Dark Sky Society is working on an application to see the whole province designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, which would make it one of three reserves in New Zealand and the largest in the world.
It won a $100,000 grant through the provincial growth fund earlier this year to support its bid for dark sky reserve accreditation.
Star Field Tours will operate from Friday to Sunday and on weekdays by arrangement, promising visitors will be “treated to an evening of star gazing with guides taking them on a journey through space and time”.