Stargazing draws domestic tourists


by Nigel Malthus

Domestic tourism is helping make up for a lack of overseas visitors as Tekapo’s Dark Sky Project stargazing attraction reopens from Covid-19 shutdown.

The project, originally developed as Earth and Sky and now run in a joint venture with Ngai Tahu Tourism, was mothballed all Ngai Tahu Tourism ventures across New Zealand borders were shut and the country went into Covid-19 lockdown.

It has been progressively reopening since July, and its flagship attraction, the Summit Experience at the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory, was brought back online on October 29.

Dark Sky Project acting business manager Adam Dooney said visitor numbers were not what they had been, but he was pleasantly surprised at the numbers coming through.

The Summit Experience was running three tours a night, five nights a week, with up to 22 people on each tour.

The shorter Crater Experience, which takes stargazing visitors to a site closer to town, had reopened in July.

The project’s $11million base in the Tekapo township, which had only been completed about a year before the shutdown, also reopened in July to limited nighttime hours but was now open from 10am each day.

“When we originally opened up after Covid, like most tourism businesses, we didn’t quite know what we would be dealing with,” Mr Dooney said.

“It was a dip in the water to see what was what was going to be happening with the industry.

“That response from New Zealanders coming out to experience and being involved in some of these iconic New Zealand experiences is really what’s driven us to get back up to Mt John and take on extra staff.”

He hoped the Summit Experience would be back to seven days a week “in the very near future”.

“To be able to go back up to Mt John and provide that premium experience is a big step for us and for the business .. For the tourism industry those are the little wins that everyone’s looking for right now, so it’s fantastic for us but also fantastic for the town and for tourism as a whole.”

By day, Mt John offered “amazing” 360-degree views of the Mackenzie Basin; by night, it was an internationally renowned astronomical site, both for tourism and for science.

Meanwhile, the business Astro Cafe, beside the observatory, and its Dark Sky Diner on the Tekapo lakefront were both expected to reopen next month.

Mr Dooney is also business manager for another of Ngai Tahu Tourism’s flagship attractions, the Hollyford Track guided walking tours through the Hollyford Valley in Fiordland National Park.

That had been forced to close when major flooding in February damaged the accommodation lodges.

Covid-19 had then disrupted the rebuild.

The finishing touches were now being applied to the refurbished lodges and the tours would resume for a shorter than usual season from January 2 to March 29, Mr Dooney said.

Like the Dark Sky Project, the Hollyford Track lacked overseas bookings, but Mr Dooney said domestic interest is “probably up 30%” on normal.

“Bookings are really strong.”

Million-dollar views . . .
The Dark Sky Projects
Astro Cafe on Mount
John, and Dark Sky
Diner on the Tekapo
lakefront, are both ex
pected to reopen in
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