Pól Ó Conghaile: Can 'astrotourism' be a new buzzword for Ireland?
In our busy lives, the notion of escaping bright lights and 24/7 connectivity for 'Dark Skies' has deep appeal
Tourism saw the light in Kerry many moons ago. Now, it's seeing the darkness.
Around the Skellig Ring, at the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, you'll find a 700sq km area that is listed as one of just a dozen Dark Sky Reserves on Planet Earth.
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The International Dark-Sky Association (dark-sky.org) is a US non-profit working against light pollution, and it certifies Dark Sky parks, sanctuaries and reserves all over the world (reserves like Kerry's consist of dark 'core' zones surrounded by populated areas that agree to limit light pollution).
Ballycroy National Park and Wild Nephin in Mayo (below), another spectacularly remote area of Ireland, contains a smaller Dark Sky park.
Why celebrate darkness?
Well, beyond the obvious environmental benefits to limiting sprawl and light pollution, travel is seeing a growing trend towards 'astrotourism'.
In our busy lives, the notion of escaping bright lights, 24/7 connectivity and urban rat runs for pristine skies has deep appeal. A few generations ago, most humans could look up and see the Milky Way. Now, the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute (ISTIL) says artificial lighting obscures the night sky for 99pc of Europeans.
Getting 'off-grid' is a tonic.
This is more than a digital detox, however. People travel for eclipses, the northern lights, or to visit observatories like those at Hawaii's Mauna Kea or Teide in Tenerife. In Utah, the new Compass Rose Lodge has its own observatory with retractable roof.
Even cruise ships, which regularly sail under clear skies, are getting in on the act. The aptly named Viking Orion launched last year, for example, with a planetarium and a resident astronomer offering lectures and guided stargazing sessions.
In Ireland, where growing visitor numbers are seeing an increasing push to develop tourism in regional areas and the off-season, 'astrotourism' has tantalising possibilities.
In Mayo, there's talk of an observatory for Wild Nephin, and local tour operator Terra Firma offers 'after dark' experiences ranging from full moon walks to stargazing safaris.
In Kerry, the obvious Star Wars opportunities excepted, local businesses are also tapping the potential. Take the Royal Valentia Hotel's Dark Skies package (Oct-March) including an introduction to astronomy, or even small touches like blankets, hot drinks and star maps at the nearby Atlantic Villa B&B. All are tempting hooks in dark winter months.
There is one problem, of course.
Ireland's weather is not like Chile's, Utah's or Tenerife's. Clouds can frustrate even the smartest star-gazers - so visitors need to temper expectations, and tour operators to prepare Plan Bs.
Read more:Into the wild: Where is Ireland's most remote location?