Tourism’s Dark Potential: How The Night Sky Could Brighten Canterbury’s Economy

Published: Sat 18 May 2024 02:30 PM
Increasing the attraction for tourists to stop off in Mid Canterbury may require setting our sights a bit higher. Reporter Jonathan Leask looks at the development of dark sky tourism in Canterbury.The milky way over Mt Hutt, an example of the dark sky that is on offer in the Mid Canterbury foothills . PHOTO/Nicole Hawke
The sparkle of a million stars and the glow of the Milky Way on a clear night is something many in Canterbury take for granted.
The damaging effects of light pollution mean that it’s estimated about 80% of people around the world have never seen a sky full of stars.
The South Island’s glistening night skies are something people travel to see, and Canterbury councils are looking to cash in.
Dark Sky tourism is touted as a multi-million dollar tourism opportunity and delegates from seven district councils in Canterbury, as well as the economic development agency ChristchurchNZ, have met to discuss the potential of developing a Dark Skies Trail in the region.
Ashburton was among them, represented at the online meeting by its tourism promotions officer, council compliance and development group manager Jane Donaldson said.
“It was essentially for councils to talk together following the Oxford Forest Conservation Area being granted international dark sky park accreditation earlier this year, and to gauge interest and progress of other councils in doing the same.
“Ashburton District is in the very early stages of investigating if parts of Mid Canterbury, like the Hakatere Conservation Park, could also be granted accreditation.
“This involves a long investigation and application process and council has just started to talk to landowners and business operators in the high country and foothills to gauge their potential interest and support.
“So very early days yet, but if it were to be developed, Ashburton District could be part of a dark sky trail.”
Increasing tourism activity around Ōtūwharekai comes with environmental concerns, with the water quality of the lakes in decline, and the area also has limited accommodation options.
“Any project in the conservation area would have to be within our goals for the whole Ōtūwharekai Ashburton Lakes area, as per our 30-year plan,” Donaldson said.
A Canterbury dark sky trail could generate $45 million for the region’s economy, an economic report on dark sky tourism by Enterprise North Canterbury suggested in 2023.
The report outlined the prospect of a Canterbury dark sky trail, linking Oxford, Tekapo, Methven, the Saint James Conservation Area in the Hurunui District and Kaikōura.
It was commissioned to support the Oxford Area School Observatory in its efforts to apply for dark sky reserve status.
Oxford was granted that status in February, becoming the sixth New Zealand community to gain dark sky accreditation.
And the Kaikōura community is actively working towards dark sky sanctuary status.
Leading the way has been the highly successful Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which was established in 2012.
It is the largest reserve (436,700 hectares) in the Southern Hemisphere, including Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, the Mackenzie Basin, Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo.
The Mount John University Observatory is the main astronomical research observatory in New Zealand, but several star-gazing tourism ventures have been introduced in the Lake Tekapo township.
Mackenzie District Council’s corporate, commercial and planning general manager Murray Dickson said the dark sky reserve status “has certainly benefitted the Mackenzie economy”, but the extent of that is difficult to measure.
“Suggested benefits following its granting in 2012 were not able to be measured, as at the same time the Christchurch earthquakes had occurred and many visitors to the Mackenzie were as a result of not being able to overnight in Christchurch on arrival and departure. Instead, they stayed in the Mackenzie.
“Benefits were also off the back of iconic existing infrastructure, primarily that at Mt John, plus the spectacular setting that is the Mackenzie Basin, Aoraki, the lakes and the Southern Alps.
“Other tourism attractions were also developed at a similar time.”
Having a regional cluster of dark sky offerings may be useful for tourism and associated branding across the region but Mackenzie is sceptical about the potential market for a trail, Dickson said.
“Our experience is that visitors travel to the region for a variety of experiences, and look to only one dark sky experience. We have not seen any material demand for a multi-day trail on an economic scale.”
The vision of the Canterbury dark sky trail is to link locations in a case of complimentary offerings, rather than competition.
Tourists need to pass through Mid Canterbury to go south to Tekapo or north to Oxford in search of the stars, so there is potential to tempt them to stop and see the sights, including the stars, before moving on.
Passing along the inland route, the view of the stars and Southern Alps is an attraction in itself, and the Ashburton District Council has built a matariki viewing deck at the Rakaia Gorge.
Enterprise North Canterbury touted Methven as a potential dark sky spot for the trail, but the community is working on a plan to improve the lighting in the tourist town, possibly putting a spanner in the works.
Dark sky has been mooted in Mid Canterbury before.
Jono Poff led the call for Mount Somers and Ōtūwharekai Ashburton Lakes to be considered as a potential dark sky reserve in 2021, and was backed up by the Mount Somers District Citizen’s Association.
They wanted a dark sky quality survey for the township and Lake Clearwater settlement, to see if it could become a dark sky reserve area.
It was included in the 2021 long-term plan but has never progressed.
Dark sky was again brought to the table by the Mount Somers District Citizens Association in the long-term plan hearings this week.
Sarah Stanaway again requested that the Mt Somers and the Hakatere Conservation Reserve in the foothills areas be assessed for dark sky project areas.
There is an astronomy group already operating in Staveley and with Oxford achieving dark sky status “night sky watching has become very popular", she said.
“It could be a possibility for our backcountry as well.”
The first step is using light meters to gauge the level of darkness, she said.
Dark sky’s potential was also raised in last year’s economic development strategy consultation.
Former Ashburton Mayor Donna Favel suggested the council investigate developing dark sky tourism in the district.
Mt Somers and Ōtūwharekai were the obvious locations, she said.
At the time, council chief executive Hamish Riach described dark sky as a “laudable idea”.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea but how you get there, and how you get the momentum, and where you would do it in the Ashburton District is not quite so clear to me.”
He pointed to the correlation between the Mackenzie dark sky reserve status and “the explosion in their tourism offerings”.
The Mt John Observatory at Tekapo was the catalyst in the McKenzie District's dark sky and it took decades to achieve dark sky status, Riach said.
The council has had some discussions around locations in the past, he said.
Those conversations are now ramping up with the appeal of it being a $45m-a-year industry for the region.
Each district in Canterbury is at a different stage around what they can offer to a dark sky trail.
Further meetings will be held between the Canterbury councils to see if they can progress the initiative.
It’s a bright idea that could bring the dawn of a new tourism element to Mid Canterbury.
Jonathan Leask - Local Democracy Reporter
Content from the Local Democracy Reporting (LDR) service is published by Scoop as a registered New Zealand Media Outlet LDR Partner.
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