We typically associate darkness with low economic development. Dark sky maps show us how dark the night sky looks from a particular place. A quick look at the dark sky map below shows us that the illuminated area on the African continent is extremely low – around 5% at most. Dark skies generally indicate one of two things: either that the ground is lit by well-shielded light fixtures, or that it is not illuminated at all. In Africa, it’s usually the latter. Our first instinct is to assume that this is bad, that Africa needs to urbanise more, or to industrialise more, and to install more lighting. I’m here to argue the opposite – that this absence of light is a good thing. In fact, it is a vast ecological and economic resource that can benefit us if we take the time to think creatively about it.
People have been lighting up nighttime environments since the invention of electric light, and more recently, the availability of efficient and affordable LED lighting. This artificial light is often excessive and poorly designed, and leaks or reflects into the night sky, causing light pollution. Light pollution is the reason you can’t see many stars from a brightly lit city. In some extremely light-polluted cities, only a handful of the brightest stars and planets are visible.
If you have lived in or visited parts of Africa, you have probably had the chance to experience a truly dark night sky away from city lights. You might have noticed the staggering number of stars in the sky. You may even have seen the faint glow of the band of our galaxy, the Milky Way. This is a rare sight. More than 80% of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies.
The tourism industry contributes about 7% to Africa’s total GDP. Like the rest of the world, the African tourism sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to bounce back from the economic effects of this crisis, the tourism industry needs robust rebuilding. We have to consider ways to innovate and improve it so that international tourists are encouraged to visit again, while also tapping into the domestic tourism market. One way to approach this is to use freely available resources that we may not have considered yet. Dark skies are one of these resources. Here are some ways that darkness can help revitalise the tourism industry and contribute to development:
Terrestrial astrotourism is any kind of travel on Earth that enables you to observe astronomical phenomena. It involves travel for special celestial events like eclipses, meteor showers, planetary conjunctions, but it also includes travelling just to see a dark starry sky. Anyone can engage in this kind of tourism, including amateur and professional astronomers, astrophotographers, or generally curious people.
Africa offers lots of rich and unpolluted skies, making it an ideal destination for astrotourists. Countries on and below the equator have an added advantage: the visibility of the southern night sky, with its many nebulae and the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds. Building tourism products around objects and events in the night sky can attract lots of curious international tourists. It is also a novelty for domestic tourists, who often reside in the city and don’t get the chance to explore the night sky.
Abundant nature is one of the main reasons international tourists visit different parts of Africa. Carefully preserved nature is a valuable economic resource – it brings curious people and money into the continent. It’s easy to forget that the night sky is a part of nature and that this aspect of nature can draw people in too. The natural darkness of the night is an environment for all the nocturnal wildlife that forms a part of our rich and diverse natural habitats. Tours and packages built around existing nature in dark parts of Africa can incorporate the night sky into their offerings. This can serve as a source of revenue and employment for tourism providers, and provide an elevating experience for the tourists themselves. Preserving the darkness of the night sky provides resources to build this opportunity, while also caring for the delicate ecosystem that relies on the dark for survival and balance.
Tourism to heritage sites
Heritage sites are places, buildings, landscapes, and structures that have been preserved because of their cultural, social, or historical significance. Heritage sites tell us how the local people before us lived and made sense of the world. Some of these places, called archaeoastronomical sites, can also tell us about the relationship that these people had with the stars. Nabta Playa in Egypt and Namoratunga in Kenya built thousands of years ago, are believed to function as astronomical calendars. Some pyramids and structures in Egypt also have non-random alignments with particular stars and constellations. These served visual purposes, like exhibiting beautiful alignments with the sun and stars during special times of the year like solstices, and religious purposes, like allowing dead pharaohs a proper passage to heaven through specific stars.
People visiting Africa are as curious about the people and cultures as they are about the environment. Maintaining dark, starry skies at archaeoastronomical heritage sites can give visitors a sense of the historical culture of the place they are visiting, and add a unique, enriching perspective to the tourism experience.
Tourists can also engage with local cultures without archaeoastronomical sites. Almost all cultures in Africa have unique stories and methods tied to the stars. Many African tribes used the stars to forecast weather, tell fortunes, search for meaning, and keep track of time. Ethnoastronomy is a rich dimension of the culture and the people, and just like archaeoastronomical heritage, can be an interesting and novel complement to tourism activities. Keeping the sky dark and unpolluted allows us to see the night sky the way our ancestors saw it. This can be done through simple guided tours of the sky through a cultural perspective, or an immersive curated cultural experience that incorporates these myths and stories with other aspects of the culture like food or ways of living. The cultural aspects of astronomy are not just interesting to foreign tourists. Local explorers are also given a chance to connect with their heritage and take pride in their roots.
Some places on the continent have begun to capitalise on dark skies, and have been recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association for their efforts towards protecting dark skies. Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve attained International Dark-Sky Reserve status in 2012 and the !Ae! Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in South Africa was declared an International Dark-Sky Sanctuary in 2019. But in general, the field of dark sky tourism in Africa is untapped and ripe for exploration and innovative sustainable development solutions.
We typically look at lighting, industrialisation, satellites and building as signs of progress and development. But an excess of these causes problems in the form of diminishing resources – land, nature, health, and (I hope I’ve convinced you of this) darkness. People and organisations around the world are realising this and mobilising efforts to reverse these effects and make the night sky dark again. This puts most of Africa at an advantage – we already have this natural resource in abundance, and we don’t have to work hard to restore it. We can develop, innovate, and grow economies without polluting the night sky. It’s time to question our notions of what development looks like and to use what we have to build a better world.
To learn more about dark sky conservation, or learn how to apply for various Dark Sk designations, you can visit the International Dark-Sky Association website.
Samyukta is an astrotourism consultant, science communicator, and dark sky advocate. Her work is committed to sustainability, nature conservation, and heritage preservation.