Why astronomy is the next big thing in travel: Northern lights in Norway, star-gazing at Uluru

The sky's the limit for tourists travelling the globe to witness astronomical phenomena.

There's now so much demand for night-time galaxy-gazing that travel company Wendy Wu is actually chartering a private plane to whisk clients on three South American tours to a remote desert spot in northern Chile to witness the total solar eclipse on July 2.

Meanwhile, Iceland is struggling to cope with the huge numbers visiting the country to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, with the mass of visitors in 2017 more than six times the size of the local population, and Norway is also fielding record levels of tourists.

Even at home, where last year we clinched the Guinness World Records title for an event that saw thousands of telescopes pointed at once at the night sky, Uluru is putting on more night-time star talks to keep pace with requests.

"I think there has been a real increase in interest in astronomy generally," says Dr Michael Brown, associate professor at the School of Physics & Astronomy at Monash University, and the spokesperson for The Astronomical Society of Australia.

"Some can be traced to the incredible advances in astronomy over the past years and how people are realising that a lot of astronomy is actually quite accessible once you get away from the city lights. The digital world has helped too with cameras, even on mobile phones, much more sensitive which enable people to take spectacular photos and share them on social media."

NASA's Mars Rovers trundling over the surface of the planet captured many imaginations, while the news (phew!) that we have another 4.5 billion years before our Milky Way is destroyed in a monstrous collision, and the showing up of hundreds of thousands of previously undetected galaxies via a new radio sky survey also made headlines.

And the TV shows and regular tours of Australia by British astro-physicist Brian Cox helps make it all, if not fathomable, then certainly more palatable.

"It is amazing how popular these natural phenomena now are," says Wendy Wu, founder of Wendy Wu Tours, who's organised the extra eclipse tour with renowned astronomer Dr Stuart Clark and copious quantities of good Chilean wine.

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"In 2009 we had what will be the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century in China, and we thought we'd be taking maybe 50 people to see it. But we surprised ourselves by taking 1000 people, 500 of them from Australia.

"I was just in London where the two-day European AstroFest was attended by 3000 people! I think everyone is now really interested in seeing these greatest natural wonders and they're fascinated about the world around them and the universe and wanting to know more is in their DNA."

At the other end of the earth, tourism to Iceland and Norway is also booming, especially with trips to see the Northern Lights.

The Icelandic Tourist Board reports that a total of 2,195,271 tourists visited in 2017, a staggering 24 per cent up on the previous year, and Australia's Cruise Express alone is this year hosting a record five winter cruises to Norway.

"We're meeting the ever-growing demand from Australians to visit one of the world's most spectacular countries," says managing director Meg Hill. "Norway is also one of the best and most accessible places from which to see the Northern Lights as well as offering other memorable experiences like husky sled rides and snow hotels."

At our own star-gazing centre, Uluru, there are many more star-gazing events organised than ever before. As well as the talks and demonstrations at the Sounds of Silence and Tali Wiru dinners, there are now star talks around the Field of Light installation and two separate tours, Outback Sky Journeys and another version for families. A dedicated astronomy weekend is now also being organised for next year.

"It's a very popular thing now," says spokesperson Karena Noble. "It's a key element of the guest experience. So many of them tell us they had no idea of how many stars there are in the night sky!"

TRIP NOTES

CHILE

Wendy Wu Tours is running three Chile Eclipse tours spanning from seven to 18 days departing in late Jane from $6980 per person twin-share, including international flights, accommodation and the charter flights. Phone 1300 727 998. See wendywutours.com.au/chile

NORWAY

Cruise Express has five trips this year, including its 15-night Northern Lights tour and cruise in January 2020 from $8590 per person twin-share. Phone 1300 766 537. See cruiseexpress.com.au.

ULURU

Ayers Rock Resort runs a variety of star-gazing activities from $50 per person for the Outback Sky Journeys Astro Tour. Phone 1300 134 044. See ayersrockresort.com.au

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