Dark sky, bright future: Mid Murray invests in Astro Tourism Strategy

SPECTACULAR: University of SA astronomy lecturer Paul 'Starman' Curnow snapped gazing at the Milky Way at the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve. Photo: Graeme Stanley
SPECTACULAR: University of SA astronomy lecturer Paul 'Starman' Curnow snapped gazing at the Milky Way at the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve. Photo: Graeme Stanley

South Australia's Mid Murray region is home to Australia's first internationally-recognised Dark Sky Reserve which has put the region on the map for astronomers and scientists from around the world.

But what benefits can having such a unique, tranquil 3200 square-kilometre reserve void of light pollution at our doorstep bring to the region?

That has been the focus of a new strategy created to assist in growing the tourism potential of the River Murray International Dark Sky Reserve (RMIDSR) in a plan to highlight the attraction to drive more tourism.

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Mid Murray Council recently endorsed its Astro Tourism Strategy to promote the growth of astro-tourism which calls for facilities such as viewing platforms, an observatory and even a planetarium where anyone can enjoy the experience.

Years ago, the Mid Murray Landcare Group and Mid Murray Council partnered to obtain dark sky reserve accreditation for the area, which was achieved in 2019, making it one of only 19 reserves located across the world and one of three in the southern hemisphere.

Now stakeholders are planning to increase its potential to attract investment, create new jobs, enhance the economy and deliver community benefits.

The strategy - funded by a $20,000 grant through the Federal Government's Building Better Regions Grants Funding Stream - sets out priorities for the council with opportunities for collaboration with other partners.

Murray River, Lakes and Coorong Tourism Alliance tourism development manager Bill Nehmy said the reserve had untapped potential.

"I see four markets for the reserve; the astrologists and scientists, the educational aspect with schools and universities, the average punter - the family market, and the international market," he said.

"It really isn't just a space for scientists. a lot of people live in cities who don't get to see the stars and this offers that unique opportunity," he said.

ACCREDITED: Chris Tugwell, Debbie Alexander, Julie Bates, Martin Lewicki, David Bennett and Paul Haese at the Big Bend Lookout, which is part of the Reserve. Photo: Dani Brown.

ACCREDITED: Chris Tugwell, Debbie Alexander, Julie Bates, Martin Lewicki, David Bennett and Paul Haese at the Big Bend Lookout, which is part of the Reserve. Photo: Dani Brown.

Mr Nehmy said local tourism operators were among the first to harness the RMIDSR's potential.

"We already have operators who are bringing people into the region to experience the wonder," he said.

Mid Murray Mayor Dave Burgess said the RMIDSR's potential was enormous and would build on other local tourism offerings.

"Astro tourism is a growing industry and, with Australia's first accredited International Dark Sky Reserve, we have the opportunity to capitalise on the increasing popularity of this niche market, not only in attracting astronomers and astro-photographers, but also amateur stargazers, families and ecotourists," Mayor Burgess said.

"There is something magical about the night sky and our reserve is one of the few places in the world where people can get a clear view of the stars and the Milky Way in their spectacular glory, protected from the intrusion of light pollution.

The reserve has also seen astrophotographers Paul Haese and Jarrod Joh take notice of the international interest in the region's night skies and establish Swan Reach Imaging - a new private observatory built within the reserve that allows stargazers to supply their own telescopes.

"Already there has been such strong global interest from astronomers and stargazers in what's happening here because of the quality of our skies," Mr Haese said.

"Our clients - most of whom live in light polluted areas or major cities - send us their telescopes and robotic equipment from around the world for installation in one of our observatories which they can remotely access via the internet to capture images whenever they want.

"We have a two-phase plan to establish the business - the first of which has involved the construction of a small imaging and testing observatory, as well as our network and security centre, and onsite power.

Our second phase involves the installation of a 9m by 6m roll-off roof observatory, which is currently awaiting development approval and will hopefully be installed before the end of the year."

Mid Murray Council Director of Development and Environmental Services Jake McVicar said there was potential to attract other economic development linked to the reserve.

"We believe that the reserve is an attractive prospect for investors looking to create innovative, privately-funded facilities such an observatory or planetarium, or even research facilities."

This story Dark sky, bright future: Astro Tourism to attract starry-eyed visitors first appeared on The Murray Valley Standard.