Night sky plays starring role in Ningxia tourism drive


The Helan Mountains offer a perfect stellar observation site in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region. [Photo/China Daily]

When night fell, and the arch of the Milky Way came into sight above the Chinese equivalent of "Route 66" in the northwestern Chinese city of Zhongwei, astronomy photographer Dong Shuchang captured the most beautiful moment.

Stargazing tourism is shining bright in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which administers Zhongwei, as, since 2000, the inland region has been trying to rebrand itself as the "hometown of stars".

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

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 stellar observation site.

In 2000, Ningxia came up with the idea of cultivating the "hometown of stars" and began developing its stargazing industry. 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 all the rage among tourists from southern areas of China. "In peak season, there are no rooms available in the hotel," says Wu Zhanjun, a marketing manager.

"Starry skies can 'add bright colors' 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," says 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, where he set up a company dedicated to stargazing tourism projects. Xu and his colleagues set up stargazing camps, conducted livestreaming sessions and designed travel routes.

"Stargazing tourism is not just about taking a trip," Xu says. "We livestreamed major astronomical phenomena and published popular science articles to enable more people to get to know Ningxia through its starry skies."

China has a strong foundation in 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 graduated and started work in September.

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

Many stargazers decided to make a life changes after the trip, Liu says. "What prompted the change is not the trip itself, but the opportunity to get to know a different side to themselves."


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