Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers in human history once said, “Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”
It is in this ancient old philosophy that a global burgeoning tourism industry referred to as astrotourism has been eluding Kenya for decades.
Astrotourism is not a new phenomenon, for centuries; people visited astronomical observatory sites in their expedition to map out the glittering constellations above us and to also explore the wonders of the universe.
In August of 2017, millions of eclipse chasers in the United States travelled to ideal sites known as the ‘path of totality’ to witness a once in a lifetime celestial phenomenon where the first total solar eclipse became visible from coast to coast in almost a century.
This rare event pumped millions of dollars into the hospitality industry across the United States in hotels which were located along the path of totality. In some cases, due to the high demand of accommodation, standard hotel rooms were priced as high as $1000 per night.
Back home in Kenya, take a trip to the west side of Lake Turkana and there lies Namoratunga, an ancient archaeoastronomical observatory site believed to have been established around 300BC, probably one of the first on earth.
It’s here at Namoratunga where site discoverers Mark Lynch and L.H. Robbins believed that our ancestors, long before the invention of the telescope and the pointing of it to the heavens by Galileo Galilee, travelled to Namoratunga and aligned stone pillars with the movements of the 7 constellations corresponding to a 354-day calendar, thereby assisting them in predicting weather patterns and prophesying future astrological events.
In this present 21st Century, this has been commercialized and termed as astrotourism. It basically involves people travelling to different parts of the worlds so as to view celestial rare occurrences such as the passing of a comet or an asteroid, meteor shower, auroras, solar eclipses, hunting for both near and far planets and at times people travel to see the launch of a rocket into orbit.
On Feb 6th 2018, SpaceX, an American commercial space company successfully tested Falcon Heavy, the most powerful space rocket ever built by man. Millions of Americans and foreigners alike travelled to Cape Canaveral to witness the historic launch.
Through the astronomical calendar, people are made aware of these annual happenings and the ideal locations to visit.
It happens to be a niche market that has witnessed dark sky hunters rapidly growing in numbers as perfect sites for observing the universe get fewer and fewer thanks to urbanization, air pollution and light pollution.
Climate change continues to threaten our natural ecosystems which we depend for the survival of our world-famous wildlife reserves. Therefore, Kenya ought to diversify its tourism industry and have the need to focus on other sectors of tourism including astrotourism. The constellations above us will forever remain infinite and untouchable.
Why promote astrotourism in Kenya? The irony is that Kenya sits on a dark continent, literally. In this respect, Kenya has one of the clearest dark skies in the world. Clear dark skies mean the presence of clean air.
In 2017, a report by Eco Experts ranked Kenya as having the cleanest air in the world. Most parts of our “blue marble” (earth) continue to record high levels of air and light pollution, thereby distracting the celestial view above us.
Astrotourism tags along with astrophotography. The Maasai people of Kenya are known to uses stars to navigate direction and predict future mystical events. The above photograph was taken by Kenyan-born Robin Stuart at the infamous Maasai Mara National Reserve showing a Maasai father illustrating the said to his son has severally been nominated for astrophotography awards at the annual Royal Observatory Greenwich in London.
Kenya is endowed with beautiful mountains, beaches, semi-deserts and wildlife reserves. These are all ideal environments for star gazing since they have the least light and air pollution.
However, a few steps lie ahead for Kenya to cement its position as an astrotourism hub. The most important is that through the Arizona-based International Dark Skies Association, some of the remotest areas in Kenya need to be conferred a “Dark Sky” status.
The aforementioned association only confers the “Dark Sky” status to locations that have taken vital steps to avoid light pollution. In Northumberland Dark Sky Park in United Kingdom, for example, it’s so dark that at times during the year Venus does cast a shadow on Earth.
The remote locations that have the potential to be conferred this unique status in Kenya can be our famous wildlife reserves, beaches, semi-deserts and mountains. With this status, many dark sky hunters from around the world will be aware and well-informed of these site locations.
The Namib desert became the first location in Africa to be conferred the Dark Sky status in 2013. Since then, the country has been attracting astrotourists in large numbers thereby generating the much-needed revenue and employment for the country. The blending of the sky and the desert is just magical.
Local hoteliers in Kenya can also tap into astrotourism as part of their products. They can do so by investing in telescopes where at a price, guests can gaze at the stars while enjoying their stay in Kenya.
Astrotourism is both for amateurs and professionals.
For astrotourism to prosper in Kenya, the country needs to capitalize its resources and invest in putting up a state-of-the-art observatory centre (s) and planetarium(s). This way, we can ensure that we attract professional stargazers from around the world to come and conduct research and groundbreaking scientific experiments. Through the recently established Kenya National Space Agency, the said can be made possible.
In conclusion, the famous American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said this- “We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.”
The curiosity of the heavens will forever intrigue man. As Sophocles said, “The heavens are impossible to understand and it takes madness to investigate.”
Science continues to remind us that we are made of Stardust. Our bodies are made of dead stars. We should never break away from our origin which is above us.
Let us invest in stargazing and make Kenya the astrotourism capital of Africa.
Julius Kimani is currently an undergraduate student of Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Nairobi