Towards an Understanding of the Astro Tourist: A conceptual and Empirical Study

Slater, Deborah Anne (2020) Towards an Understanding of the Astro Tourist: A conceptual and Empirical Study. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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It is well documented that mankind has been intrigued by the stars in the sky above for centuries. The stars traditionally represented a means of navigation, symbolised the gods and, to this day, inspire scientific examination and the creative imagination. However, few attempts have been made to conceptualise and empirically analyse the link between stargazers and tourism, thus creating a necessity for exploration. Stargazers (known as astro tourists throughout study) vary widely from those interested in the moon; the discovery of new planets; to those interested in the constellations, particularly as their motivations and preferences for being in the dark are varied and multidimensional. Therefore, the purpose of this ethnographic study was to critically explore the experiences and behaviours of the astro tourists as they are instrumental in providing an understanding of this emerging special interest form of tourism in the real world.
Specifically, the location of the case study was the first UK Dark Sky Park in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, a landscape that embodies the darkness required to observe the stars in the sky above with the naked eye. Dark sky designation is a contemporary construct designed to protect the night sky from light pollution, it offers the astro tourist the opportunity to see the Milkyway on a cloud free, moonless night. It also offers tourists the chance to experience true darkness, an experience that is denied to many due to light pollution.
To date, literature related to astro tourism has focused predominantly upon the management of the destination. For example, a few studies are related to the astro tourist as an environmentalist who seeks to protect the night sky, whereas others relate to the pursuit of science. As a result, a gap has emerged in the understanding of the needs and experiences of the aforementioned astro tourist. In addressing this gap, this research provides a critical exploration of the astro tourist as it identifies the experiences, the spiritual nature of being in the dark, and the significance that outer-space has on the contemporary tourist. This study is instrumental in developing a contextual framework that reflects the dynamic relationships between need satisfaction, space embodiment and place significance as it critically discusses how these three concepts link to understanding the astro tourist experience.
This thesis is an ethnographic study that contains a complex interplay with a phenomenographic approach, thus a dual methodology is applied. Consequently, this study focuses upon the use of qualitative research methods within an interpretative/constructive paradigm, whilst seeking to explore the ‘different ways’ in which ‘people experience something’ or ‘think about something’ (Ryan, 1995:53). This study is framed by psychogeographic ideology, employed initially to develop an environmental understanding of the astro tourist experience via observation, it aimed to ascertain the sensory motives experienced by the participants via survey, and finally to delve deeper into the behaviours and experiences of participants via interviews. Throughout the study, reflexivity is employed to portray the journey from darkness to light.
The findings add to the body of knowledge by illustrating that astro tourists are interested in far more than learning about the stars, they visit the destination to look up, usually with family and friends; the dark has a significant effect upon their experience as for many it is existential; the weather and the presence of others at the event enhance the experience due to their physicality. Many astro tourists do not have an interest in the forest park or their Earthly surroundings at place, they focus upon the night-sky; outer space plays a significant role in their experience, whereas place is an enabler, a means to an end, this adds a hitherto unexplored dimension to the tourists’ experience and behaviour research, which traditionally placed the destination central to the visitor experience – making astro tourism a none destination experience. Sensory dimensions of the experience are created by a tri-partite relationship which incorporates the dark, space and the senses, these combine to give significance to the astro tourist experience.

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