Tourists follow the shining stars in China


Stargazing tourism is becoming popular around the world. — RYAN JACOBSON/Unsplash

When night fell, and the arch of the Milky Way came into sight above the Chinese version of “Route 66”. Astronomy photographer Dong Shuchang caught the most beautiful moment of the road in the northwestern Chinese city of Zhongwei.

Stargazing tourism is shining bright in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which administers Zhongwei, as the inland region has been trying to cultivate itself into a “hometown of stars” since last year.

“Ningxia has many places where you can film starry skies, and the transportation is convenient,” said Dong, 23, a native of Ningxia who has been named Astronomy Photographer of the Year by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Britain.

Dry with scant rainfall, Ningxia enjoys around 300 sunny and fine days per year and low levels of light pollution. Convenient transportation and abundant landscapes featuring mountains and deserts add to its growing reputation as a star observation site.

Last year, Ningxia started to develop its stargazing tourism scene. A pentagram-shaped hotel was built in Shapotou Scenic Area in Zhongwei, a desert tourist destination.

The star-themed hotel, together with its cuisine, performances and lectures related to astronomy, has become a rage among tourists from southern areas of China. “In peak season, no room is available in the hotel,” said Wu Zhanjun, a marketing manager.

“Starry skies can ‘add bright colours’ to the traditional tourism resources in northwestern areas. Currently, Ningxia is exploring tourism products and service standards involving deserts and astronomy, and the construction of several star observation camps is on the top of our agenda,” said Liu Jun, head of the regional department of culture and tourism.

With the development of China’s astronomy education and the space industry, there has been a growing interest in stargazing among Chinese people. Statistics show that more than 30,000 astronomy lovers and photographers rush to Ningxia every year.

However, compared with New Zealand and Japan, China’s stargazing tourism is still in the incipient stages. There is a dearth of tourism destinations with complete supporting facilities and mature marketing channels.

This is why art designer Xu Bo gave up his job in Shanghai and returned to his hometown in Ningxia, where he set up a company dedicated to stargazing tourism projects. Xu and his colleagues set up stargazing camps, conducted livestreaming sessions, and designed travelling routes.

“Stargazing tourism is not a simple trip,” Xu said. “We livestreamed major astronomical phenomena and published popular science articles to let more people know Ningxia through its starry skies.”

China has a strong foundation for astronomy and the most advanced communication technologies. Xu hopes to make Ningxia an ideal place for stargazers and astronomy lovers at home and abroad.

To enable stargazers to get more professional guidance in Ningxia, the first batch of 40 astronomy tour guides had graduated and started to work in September.

Liu Pushun, 40, is one of them. Under innumerable stars, he talked about knowledge of the constellation, and gave every tourist a chance to share their stories with starry skies. Some people cried, some got excited, and some fell into silence.

Many stargazers decided to make a change in life after the trip, Liu said. “What has prompted the change is not the trip itself, but the opportunity to empty themselves and come to know their invisible selves.” – Xinhua

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