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Astrotourism: The Tourism of the Future in La Palma

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La Palma is not just a fun place to visit during the day. The island is also fascinating at night when the sky is full of stars. The night sky in La Palma is very clear. It is so clear, in fact, that visitors feel they can reach out with their hands and actually touch the orbiting planets. Star-gazing is a great way to disconnect from normal life and look at the universe with a fresh perspective.

Stargazing has been appreciated by the inhabitants of the Canary Islands for thousands of years. Lawmakers responded to this enthusiasm in 1988 when they passed a law which protected the quality of the archipelago’s night sky. It isn’t just the people who are fascinated by the Canary Islands night sky. The world’s scientific community is also interested. In the archipelago there is an institute of astrophysics which has headquarters both in the Astrophysics Centre, in Breña Baja, La Palma, and in the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, in the municipality of Garafía, La Palma. The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory is part of the network of Singular Scientific and Technical Infrastructures (ICTS). Members of the international scientific community gather at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory to study the universe throughout the year. The telescope at the Caldera de Taburiente National Park is also a majestic site. The scientific instrument is located on a peak which rises into the clouds. The surrounding area is equally dramatic with a beautiful coastline with beaches and walking paths that traverse through volcanic terrain.

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La Palma has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. The island is a paradise for people who enjoy the outdoors, but it is also great for those who like to eat well. The island is part of the Tasting Spain network which celebrates first class gastronomic destinations. La Palma is known as the “beautiful island”. It is also recognised as a Starlight Reserve and Tourist Destination (www.starsislandlapalma.es).

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Astrophysicists at Roque de los Muchachos investigate the origins of the universe by observing the sounds and colours of the stars. Carlos Allende Prieto, a researcher at the IAC, is, along with David Aguado, Jonay González Hernández, and Rafael Rebolo, part of a group of researchers who have made some interesting discoveries from the telescopes at La Palma. Each year more is known about the origins of the universe.

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Recently key developments have taken place in La Palma. Scientists have been observing lithium in some of the oldest stars, and it has given them key data on the precise moment when the Big Bang occurred. Roque de los Muchachos, and the six instruments of the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), are a draw for the world’s scientific community.

“When you say you work in La Palma with an international group of astrophysicists everyone knows what you are talking about,” says Carlos Allende.

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Stargazing is enjoyable for the normal public as well as for experts. Ana García Suárez is an astrophysicist, but she is also the head of an astrotourism company (https://lapalmastars.com/). Since 2012 the business has carved out a niche in the international astrotourism market. Thanks to the exceptional night sky in La Palma tour operators have had a lot of success with many visitors interested in exploring space from the comforts of earth. Companies run tours and astronomy workshops. They also put on introductory stargazing courses and astronomical photography sessions (for beginners and advanced photographers). 

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Ana García is wearing a pendant in the shape of the Moon for her interview. She is clearly passionate about what she does. García says that her company’s model for allowing others to enjoy the night sky in La Palma “works because we are a team that loves what it does”. García says that in her part of the tourism sector you “have to love what you do. You have to be able to connect with visitors by telling stories.” García welcomes visitors in groups of sometimes more than 100 people. She has a staff of seven well-trained employees. Her office is decorated as if it were a lunar module. La Palma is great for stargazing tours because of the weather which offers very consistent clear skies. “We have a privileged geographical position,” says García.

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Ana Castañeda Pérez is head of general affairs at the La Palma local government. According to Pérez, there are 300 companies that currently operate in La Palma. These companies co-operate through the Astrotourism Entrepreneurs Group and the Astrotourism Board of La Palma. Seeing the astrotourism sector grow is one of Pérez’s “greatest joys”, she says. Pérez is a tireless worker. She appreciates the fact that the island is a benchmark for the rest of the planet when it comes to sky protection and astrotourism.

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In La Palma ongoing work is taking place to create the best possible environment for astrotourists. Signposts are being updated and hiking viewpoints are being refurbished. While construction on the Roque de los Muchachos Visitor Centre and the Mendo Environmental and Recreational Complex are already underway. The addition of fabulous restaurants in La Palma make the island a real draw for tourists. La Palma and the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute are, in the words of Castañeda Pérez, “ready” to receive the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) which La Palma is competing for with Hawaii.

La Palma is dedicated to becoming an international meeting point for researchers. The island has created a Walk of the Stars of Science, which is located on Avenida de Santa Cruz de La Palma. It was inaugurated by Stephen Hawking and is designed to celebrate the achievements of prominent scientists. Film festivals in La Palma, such as the Festivalito La Palma, celebrate the night sky. There are also night time themed sports events during the Transvulcania and the Reventón trails.

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The night sky in La Palma is a fabulous source of inspiration for scientists, locals, tourists, filmgoers, and athletes. For thousands of years stars have enthralled humanity and the Canary Islands is the perfect place to discover why.