Astrotourists travel the globe

Star Trekking (Baltimore Sun)

For two nights, the skies above a remote and nearly treeless campground in north-central Nebraska produced only disappointment for the 350 eager stargazers gathered there for the ninth annual Nebraska Star Party.

Sunday evening was socked in by clouds. And on Monday, a hopeful appearance by the planet Venus was soon smothered by clouds that rolled in from the south and boiled up a thunderstorm.

On the third day, however, the sun rose and restored our hope. It beamed relentlessly all day onto the parched hills southwest of Valentine, where we had assembled. Then the Earth turned, the sun set and the prairie sky faded to a pale, clear blue.

Soon Venus gleamed in the west, and by 9:25, stars began to pop into view -- first Vega, then Altair and Deneb, the bright stars of the "Summer Triangle."

Surely this night will bring the reward for our patience -- long, dark, balmy hours of first-class stargazing in one of the darkest places in the continental United States.

This meeting of amateur astronomers each summer has grown apace with worldwide interest in astronomy tourism -- a segment of ecotourism that promoters now refer to as astrotourism.

Remote communities like Valentine and pricey, specialized tour companies alike are profiting from the growing number of people willing to spend time and money traveling to witness rare celestial events, or simply to observe the heavens under truly dark skies.

"There's no question that it's grown a lot," says Rick Fienberg, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine. "It used to be that a very small number of people -- die-hard enthusiasts -- would make a special arrangement to go on an eclipse tour," he says.

But travel is easier, and more comfortable, these days. After the first big commercial eclipse cruise in 1972, "suddenly the notion of combining luxury vacations with seeing an eclipse began to catch on," Fienberg says. Now, it is a multimillion-dollar industry, with a dozen or more tour operators in the United States, plenty of options beyond eclipse tours and a growing interest worldwide.

"Baby boomers are coming of age, and weeklong resort vacations are not necessarily what people in their 40s, 50s and 60s today are looking for," Fienberg says. Many astrotourists are well-educated professionals with money to spend, he adds, "and they're building their vacations around these types of celestial events."

Astrotourism soars

When a total eclipse of the sun sent the moon's shadow racing across the Caribbean Sea in February 1998, as many as 20,000 tourists, according to one estimate, watched it from a flotilla of cruise ships strung out along the line of totality -- the predicted path of the moon's shadow. Perhaps 100,000 more watched from land.

A total solar eclipse Dec. 4 this year will be visible across southern Africa and Australia. One tour operator, TravelQuest, will have 50 people on a cruise ship in the Mozambique Channel off East Africa, 40 more on safari on the mainland, and 75 touring the Australian outback.

Jamie Bearse, of Arlington, Va., will be at Akeru Lodge in Timbavati, South Africa, with his wife, Caroline Powers. They're combining a business trip with a weeklong safari / eclipse tour that's setting them back about $2,000 each.

Bearse is no astronomer. But he's always been drawn to science stories in the media. When he realized his business trip to Cape Town was timed to coincide with the solar eclipse, he began digging and found game lodges offering eclipse / safari packages.

"We've never been to Africa, never been on safari, and we have that added element of being able to see an eclipse," he says. "This opportunity is going to be absolutely amazing."

Lew Whitaker, 68, a retired airline pilot from Tampa, Fla., and Joan Poultney, 59, a psychotherapist from Wilton, Conn., will intercept the moon's shadow in the Australian outback. They'll get barely 30 seconds of totality on their $4,500 per person TravelQuest expedition. Eclipse veterans, they have stood beneath the moon's shadow on tours to the Caribbean, eastern Turkey and Zambia.

"A total eclipse of the sun is an absolutely awesome experience," Poultney says. "The animals quiet down because it seems to them that night is coming. The temperature drops, so there is a stillness to the air as well. The light quality changes, rather like twilight but kind of slightly eerie. Awesome is just the best word."

The prices can be awesome, too. TravelQuest's selection starts at $1,200 for a week of dark-sky observing in Arizona, and soars to $41,000 for a November 2003 eclipse expedition to Antarctica. (That trip will land up to 30 people on the ice to watch a solar eclipse visible from nowhere else on the planet. Ticket holders will spend about $20,000 for each minute of totality they'll see.)