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Tourism boost thanks to Dark Skies

Galloway Forest Dark Skies park Photo: ITV Border

Britain's only "Dark Sky Park" has prompted a tourism boost in South West Scotland during the traditional "off-season".

Galloway Forest Park became Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in November 2009, during the International Year of Astronomy.

It involved every light bulb in the area being changed to downward-facing "dark-sky" bulbs, to stop light pollution.

Forty-seven residents living within the confines of the park also agreed to change their own bulbs in support of the bid.

The pitch-black sky makes it an ideal spot for stargazers who can see the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, as well as all 18 constellations visible in the northern hemisphere.

The stargazing season runs during from October to March, and an economic impact report said as a result extra visitors have been pulled into the area during the off-season.

The total cost to transform the area was about £21,000, paid for by the government body Forestry Commission Scotland (FSC), which made the bid.

A total of 35 businesses in Galloway, including guest houses, bed and breakfasts, hotels and self-catering properties, were surveyed, with 77% reporting an impact on the number of bed nights as a result of the Dark Sky Park.

The Dark Sky Park Economic Impact Assessment, carried out by ekos for FCS, said £40,584 has been returned in "additional expenditure" as a result of an increase in visitors, meaning for every £1 spent on transforming the area, there has been a return on investment of £1.93.

The report's authors said that the benefits it highlights could just be the tip of the iceberg.

It should be noted that this is only a partial assessment of the economic impact of the Dark Sky Park. There are a number of factors which mean that the full impact of the Dark Sky Park will be much higher.

– The Dark Sky Park Economic Impact Assessment report

These factors include visitors who may come to the area only for the day and visitors who may opt to stay with friends and relatives rather than at paid-for accommodation.

The majority (84%) of businesses said they feel the Dark Sky Park is potentially important in attracting visitors to the area, and 81% said this was relevant, particularly in the "quieter" part of the year.

There's hotels running specialist weekends now on stargazing and they're already booked up.We're hearing more and more people talking to our staff out in the parks, saying that they're coming here and they're asking specifically about the night sky and where to go, and that has increased. So we're hearing more and more that people are coming and we can see through the counters we have at different car parks that more people are going at night - we presume for dark sky gazing.

– Keith Muir, FCS's head of tourism and recreation in Galloway

Mr Muir added that stargazers and skywatchers were in for a treat later this year with four separate meteor showers expected to be spotted over Scotland's skies.

He said the next main event in the astronomical diary is the Perseids shower in August, a steam of debris consisting of particles ejected by the comet Swift-Tuttle as it travels on a 130-year orbit.

Mike Alexander runs Galloway Astronomy Centre, a bed and breakfast near Whithorn, which has an observatory in the grounds.

He said they are already "full-to-the brim" over the weekend of August 12/13, when the shower is expected to take place.

Our area is probably one of the darkest there is, with a beautiful clear sky. The population in Dumfries and Galloway is very low and people create light, which reduces the number of stars we can see. So we have a broader array of objects to see and the most impressive thing is probably the Milky Way because it stretches from horizon to horizon. But there's also the sheer number of stars in between all the bright stars which make up the constellations.

– Mike Alexander, Galloway Astronomy Centre B&B