Sandhills Stargazing: How Astrotourism Could Be a Nebraska Moneymaker

Oct. 20, 2021, 3 p.m. ·


Listen To This Story

Nebraska Light Pollution
A view of Nebraska's light pollution, based on data from NOAA. Brighter colors indicate sources of light pollution. (Photo by Daniel Wheaton)

At this week's Nebraska Tourism Conference in Grand Island, speakers are touching on how to enhance and expand the industry across the state. The conference is focusing on more than a dozen aspects within the tourism sector, including a budding avenue that could excel in the Cornhusker state: astrotourism. Jackie Ourada spoke with the keynote speaker, who goes by Marlin, about the big potential lying underneath Nebraska's skies.

Marlin, author of Astrotourism and a dark sky ambassador, is traveling to Nebraska this week to talk about the potential of astrotourism in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Marlin)
Photo courtesy of the book's author, Marlin.

Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News: Marlin, I was thinking this was going to be exploring space from Nebraska, but this is more about appreciating the open dark spaces -- something of course we have a lot of here. Can you explain why this is taking off?

Marlin, 'Astrotourism' author: Well, more and more people are starting to travel to see the last remaining dark skies in the world. And this phenomenon of astrotourism has been growing steadily. So if 80% of North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way, then they're going to be traveling to those places where they can, and Nebraska has some fabulous dark skies here, which a lot of people think everybody sees this, but they don't. So the way I like to describe it as you're sitting under a diamond mine.

Ourada: Yeah, this is fascinating, because often we think of visiting cities [on vacation], but this is the opposite. Some people hate the dark; you're embracing it. Why do you think this could succeed in Nebraska?

Marlin: Yeah. One of the great things about astrotourism is that it spreads the tourist dollars to a much more rural area where people would normally not go, because the idea is like, 'Well, what's to see there? Well, yeah, the rest of the universe for starters.' The ways to cultivate that is to create further attractions, like in a number of states, there are these planetary walks where you'd have the sun to start, and then you walk so many paces and you reach Mercury, and then so many paces and you reach Earth, Venus, and then further and further out, so the whole thing is built to scale. So that's an idea for an attraction. Another thing would be to move towards getting 'Dark Sky Certification' from the International Dark Sky Association, which I believe the Merritt Reservoir [in Valentine, Nebraska] is moving through that process. There's over 160 of these 'Dark Sky Certified' parks, reserves, and sanctuaries throughout the world, and there aren't any in Nebraska yet. And, yet, in some of your counties like Cherry County, and I believe it's Butte, and Sioux, out on the very northwest corner of Nebraska, you can have entire counties designated as 'Dark Sky Certified' parks or reserves. Now once you get that certification, now you're on the map and more people are going to start traveling there because it is that place. And it's astonishing how much of the growth has been in visitation to these areas around these parks.

Ourada: Now, there's so many facets to this that we don't have time to touch on right now, but in your book, 'Astrotourism,' you talk about how light pollution affects our health, how it impacts animals, and how people can partake in astrotourism without bringing light pollution to those spaces. In our last minute, though, I wanted to ask you, what's the reaction you get from people who travel from bigger cities just to see a dark night sky?

Marlin: That's a great question. I have a little Airbnb that I have on my place in Hawaii. A little cabin that I built for people to stay in. It's a very rural setting, and folks come from L.A. or San Francisco, and they drive up, they get out of their car, they look up and it's like, it's like a part of them is being awakened to realize that they're part of something as big as the universe. I've seen people kind of like get a little teary eyed. Weeping is not an uncommon occurrence for people who see the Milky Way for the first time, from the sheer beauty and magnificence of it, possibly from the fact that they're realizing this has been out there, and I've been missing this all of my life. I think, personally, my own philosophy is that when we see that cosmic display above our heads -- that canopy of stars -- it expands us. And I realize that this is kind of it's a philosophical, spiritual conversation, but we call it the heavens, we look up and we go, 'the heavens.' And it's like, okay, now I'm connected to the heavens, and by adopting dark sky practices we're bringing the heavens, back to Earth, so we can all experience that again. I believe that if we can't see the heavens that we belong to, we forget that we're a part of the heavens.

Ourada: Of course, that's such a great way to look at it. Thank you so much, Marlin.

This interview was edited for length.