Astrotourism as an income-generating opportunity in South African national parks
Wassenaar, Amelia Salomie
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National parks play a major role in the tourism industry of South Africa. Income-generating activities within parks must be managed responsibly to protect the environment. Considering the natural resource of dark skies in most South African National Parks, astrotourism was identified as a potential low impact income-generating activity. The aim of the research was to explore the potential role of astrotourism activities in the diversification of experiential offerings in SANParks and to develop an operational model for its application. As a mixed-method exploratory study, it gathered insight into a little-known research area. The study utilised both secondary and primary data collected through literature reviews, case studies, desktop analysis, in-depth interviews with stakeholders and an online survey. Participants selected for in-depth interviews included stakeholders and management staff involved in the astrotourism initiatives of the case studies, management staff within SANParks, as well as astronomy experts. The geographical location of parks included in the study was limited to South Africa. However, case studies, in-depth interview participants and online survey respondents were included without geographical limitations. A combination of non-probability sampling strategies was used for the online survey, including convenience, purposeful and snowball sampling. Respondent recruitment for the online survey was conducted through email forwarding and social media. Sixty-two case studies were conducted from which forty-two individuals were identified and interviewed. Thirteen stakeholders within SANParks‟ management participated in the in-depth interviews. A total of 1150 individuals responded to the online survey. Qualitative data from the literature review, case studies and in-depth interviews were contextualised and analysed according to the relevant themes. Quantitative survey data were analysed using SAS software. Results from the comprehensive study indicated the following. Tourists are increasingly conscious of the impact of their choices on the environment and are positively influenced by activities with a low environmental impact. Light pollution holds various negative ecological implications for humans and the environment. While individuals are willing to prevent light pollution within their home environment, education on the implementation thereof is required. Policies regulating the use of artificial light in urban areas and communities around parks are required to mitigate light pollution associated with development and urbanisation. The tourism industry has the unique opportunity to not only limit light pollution within parks but also to create awareness of the negative impact of indiscriminate use of light, while simultaneously diversifying tourism offerings to an increasingly environmentally conscious clientele. SANParks has several parks in its portfolio where astrotourism initiatives could be successful, especially in arid regions. Guides must be well trained to present astrotourism activities and astronomy experts can be approached to present specialised events. The importance of community engagement should not be underestimated in the development of activities. The majority of respondents supported the development of low environmental impact astrotourism activities within national parks, but required that activities are authentic astrotourism experiences and not over-commercialised. Individuals with limited, or no knowledge of astronomy as well as astronomy experts indicated high levels of interest in astrotourism activities in parks. Every park‟s unique attributes should be considered when planning activities. Two main motivations for potential participation in astronomy activities in parks are the opportunity to broaden the individual‟s personal astronomy interest and to get in touch with nature. An operational model was developed within which SANParks can develop and implement astrotourism activities in parks. The Four-Component Operational Astrotourism Model is comprised of environmental, economic, visitor experience and implementation components. This approach provides comprehensive practical input to implement astrotourism activities in South African National Parks based on scientific research.