PLANS have been announced to turn part of the North East into one of the world’s biggest dark sky preserves and attract thousands more tourists.
A bid is to be lodged for official Dark Sky status for the Northumberland National Park and Kielder Forest and Water Park.
The moves, which build on the 30,000 visitors who have come to Kielder since an observatory opened there four years ago, could see Northumberland cashing on the “astronomy tourism” that has proved lucrative in other parts fo the world.
There are currently only 12 dark sky reserves in the world and the 400 square mile Northumberland National Park would become the third-largest globally and the largest in Europe.
The tourist trade is already worth over £650m to Northumberland but in the recession new ways of sustaining that level are increasingly important.
Coun John Riddle, Northumberland National Park chairman, said: “This could be a real big boost for the most rural area of the county. We already know that people come to the Kielder Observatory and that there’s a good spin-off for accommodation and businesses in the area.”
Giles Ingram, Northumberland Tourism chief executive, said: “There is a niche tourism where people set up their telescopes to look at the stars, but this would go well beyond that.
“Dark Sky status would underscore the tranquil beauty of Northumberland and prove an added attraction for visitors.”
Galloway Forest Park in south-west Scotland has already won Dark Sky Park status for its 300 square miles and a survey has shown that business at 77% of B&Bs, hotels and self-catering outlets in the area has soared.
Economic spin-offs have also resulted for other businesses in the region and Northumberland is confident it can replicate that.
Richard Darn of the Forestry Commission at Kielder, a member of the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society, said: “In terms of astro-tourism, we are ahead of the game at Kielder because of the observatory which we opened in 2008, as well as the star camps.
“We already have the evidence that those things are incredibly popular and we know from local bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants that the observatory has brought more people into the area.
“We also have evidence from Galloway, with whom we have consulted closely. They have done a survey on the economic impact there and there is clear evidence that there has been an upturn in tourism.
“We think Dark Sky Status here will be a major driver in bringing people to Northumberland.”
Northumberland project chiefs are meeting residents, parish councils and businesses to gauge feedback before applying to the International Dark Skies Association in Tucson, in the United States.
They would have to undertake an audit of outside lights and present a future management plan to back their bid.
Ground light pollution would be controlled although it would not impact directly on individual householders.
Elisabeth Rowark, director of the Kielder Water and Development Trust, emphasised: “It’s crucial to understand that Dark Sky status does not mean turning lights off.
“Rather it is about working with people and Northumberland County Council to create better and less wasteful lighting and promoting the night sky as an asset for the region.
“Northumberland is a magical place both by night and day. Dark Sky status would allow us to protect, cherish and promote our natural lightscapes.
“But gaining public support is the key. We are already benefiting from Dark Sky tourism in the shape of the successful £450,000 Kielder Observatory, which has drawn 30,000 people since opening in 2008.
“Star camps also attract hundreds of observers every year.”
Duncan Wise, who is leading the Dark Sky Reserve Project for the Northumberland National Park Authority, said: “It will be a spur to sustainable tourism, help cut energy costs, and benefit nocturnal wildlife.
“We want to build a consensus and shape our plans with the public. By acting now we can protect the special quality of the National Park.”
It is estimated that the North East’s areas of dark skies shrank against growing ground-light pollution by 30% between 1993 and 2000, and have continued to diminish since.
Since the start of this year, stargazers and astronomers have taken hundreds of light meter readings across the proposed Dark Sky area.
All National Park residents are being contacted with letters explaining the process and inviting comment.
Byrness and Rochester and Stonehaugh Parish Councils are supporting the plans, and Kielder Parish Council is actively working alongside the Kielder Development Trust.