Dark sky tourism occurs predominantly in remote areas with little-to-no light pollution, where travellers can observe celestial objects and take part in other activities like astrophotography (Dalgleish & Bjelajac, 2022). While stargazing, visitors may see everything from planets and stars to other galaxies, observed with telescopes, binoculars, or the naked eye. Many dark sky tourists are amateur or professional astronomers seeking unpolluted nightscapes (Dalgleish & Bjelajac, 2022). Worldwide, DST is increasing in popularity as a niche tourism product (Jacobs, Du Preez & Fairer-Wessels, 2020).
Dark sky tourism has also been found to support several of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) and shows potential for capacity-building and socioeconomic development (Dalgleish, Mengistie, Backes, Cotter & Kasai, 2021). This includes educational benefits, such as the rediscovery of ancient traditions through celestial stories, which can help to awaken an interest in modern science (Urama, 2021). Another study highlighted DST as an opportunity for the tourism industry to ensure environmental protection in two ways: (1) limiting the use of artificial light at night within its national parks and (2) educating the public and creating awareness of the detrimental impact of emitting night light (Wassenaar, 2020).
Namibia has one of the lowest population densities in the world, which lends itself to unpolluted, dark night skies. Namibia is also one of the world’s driest countries, and so in combination with its low levels of light pollution, the country is a viable destination for dark sky tourism development (Stone, 2019). However, the participation of indigenous communities and inclusion of astronomy-related indigenous knowledge is often missing in the experience of dark sky tourism.
Alongside stargazing and astrophotography, DST provides an opportunity for cultural aspects to be shared and experienced via storytelling. These stories are based on ancient mythology or indigenous starlore surrounding the constellations, asterisms and dark clouds in the night sky, depending on the cultural heritage of the region. The inclusion of indigenous starlore is rare in dark sky tourism. One example exists in the offerings of the company Astrotourism Western Australia. In Australia, Aboriginal indigenous knowledge of astronomy includes an understanding of the seasons and a familiarity with how particular food sources emerge. The Aboriginal people use the dark sky in marriage practices and other cultural mnemonics (Hamacher & Norris, 2011). Notably, the Western Australian government’s Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage produced a position statement in January 2022 entitled “Dark Sky and Astrotourism”. The statement provides a set of principles and planning measures to reduce light pollution to safeguard dark sky tourism, and its associated traditional Aboriginal cultural experiences, as an emerging product in the local tourism market. Ancient indigenous communities have been observing the night sky for millennia thereby developing a cultural connection to it.
Through the adoption of a more westernised lifestyle, many indigenous communities in Namibia, as in the rest of Africa, have lost their connection to the night skies and knowledge garnered through cultural practices used by their predecessors for ancient astronomical observation. There is an urgent need to preserve this rich cultural heritage through sustainable DST development.
Dark Sky Tourism Development in Namibia
As the interest in dark sky tourism grows worldwide, it is important to address the lack of discussion on indigenous astronomy and its role in DST. With some of the darkest skies in the world, and a wealth of indigenous knowledge, Namibia is an ideal country in which to explore the relationship between indigenous people, starlore and tourism.
Namibia’s rural communities and conservancies have been involved in tourism activities for over twenty years, although dark night skies have been overlooked as a tourism experience. This is due to a lack of awareness of the potential of this type of niche tourism to bring benefits to their communities when developed humanely and sustainably.
A secondary reason for the lack of impetus is the loss of indigenous knowledge of the night skies. Few elders still hold this astronomy lore, passing it on as part of the oral tradition, but very little of this body of knowledge has been documented to be shared with the younger generations.
Local tour guides in rural areas have not realised the full potential that this indigenous knowledge could play in drawing more tourists to their areas. The private sector in Namibia offers DST experiences, however, few of them include or incorporate indigenous astronomy knowledge in their offerings.
The Namibian government regards tourism as a priority sector for socioeconomic development (MEFT, 2016). Community-based tourism programmes involving indigenous communities have been praised over the years for their ability to empower indigenous communities in Namibia, although some have also been criticised for the failure to address indigenous community needs and aspirations (Koot, Ingram & Bijsterbosch, 2020).
Historically, indigenous communities have fashioned strong relationships with their surrounding natural environments to ensure their survival and have safeguarded the source of indigenous knowledge that constitutes a part of their cultural identity (Warnholtz, Ormerod & Cooper, 2020). Losing connection to nature, for which the night sky is a part, threatens an indigenous community’s sense of belonging and social cohesion, creating a future that is unsustainable. DST provides an opportunity to preserve indigenous astronomy by providing opportunities for younger members to remain in their community, and by necessitating the need for starlore to be retained and passed on to future generations.
In Namibia, sustainable development agendas are based on addressing gender inequalities, and tourism has been identified as a key means of addressing these shortcomings (Dowling & Pforr, 2021). Empowering indigenous women in DST development in Namibia is essential to achieving the sustainable development goals. Research has shown that failure to include women in tourism development has resulted in socioeconomic costs and damage to the natural environment (Boluk, Cavaliere & Higgins-Desbiolles, 2019). Alternative tourism activities like dark sky tourism offer an opportunity for women to reconnect with the natural environment and play a role in preserving their rich cultural heritage. Ancient celestial interpretations by women can help to educate their communities on the value of the night skies for socioeconomic development and aid in addressing gender inequalities in rural tourism development in Namibia. Rural women could establish homestay tourism experiences that offers unique and authentic cultural heritage experiences of the night skies in an eco-friendly unpolluted night sky natural environment.
It is recommended that DST in Namibia should be implemented in a manner that empowers and benefits indigenous communities (especially women), the tourism sector, the general population of Namibia, and international tourists through a sustainable dark sky tourism development strategy. As we look to the future and consider tourism recovery in a post-Covid-19 world, research on dark sky tourism is especially relevant. Provides novel and meaningful insights to several related academic fields. Filling an existing gap in the literature on the potential for dark sky tourism to contribute to sustainable community development in rural areas with little light pollution.
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