Charmaine Leong explores the rise of Astrotourism in Southeast Asia and its imperative for scientific advancement.
As cities expand, artificial lights from streetlamps, cars, and other manmade sources conceal the once-perfect twinkling of stars in the darkness of the night sky. One can even quip that the only visible Milky Way is perhaps the candy bar and not the one in the sky.
Traditionally, Southeast Asians have integrated ancient astronomical knowledge into their lives, mainly to determine agricultural and harvest timings. Fishermen and sailors depended on celestial knowledge for navigation. Regionally, astronomy was also correlated with one’s destiny and religion, especially in Buddhism. A 9th century Mahayana Buddhist temple in Central Java named Borobudur, had its biggest stupa, a gigantic 15,000 square-metre stone structure, on the highest level accurately aligned with temporal and seasonal changes, acting as a sundial for the locals.
Today, these astronomical activities have evolved into astrotourism, an experiential venture combining travel with astronomy, which has been gaining traction in Southeast Asia. Astrotourism is largely understood as having two subtypes — terrestrial or dark sky tourism and space tourism. Although less popular than in Europe and Australia, which pride themselves on the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis — more commonly known as the Northern and Southern Lights — respectively, other astronomical phenomena, such as the Super Blue Blood Moon, lunar eclipses, and total solar eclipses, have attracted visitors from all over wanting to catch a glimpse of these rare events that can be viewed only in some parts of the world, including Southeast Asia.
Occurring once every 2,380 full moons, or once every 265 years, the once-in-a-lifetime Super Blue Blood Moon was visible from Indonesia’s Nyiur Melambai beach, Belitung Island, on 31 January 2018. Its success in boosting tourism revenue led Indonesia to host the lunar eclipse viewing near the Mars opposition – a phenomenon where Mars is 180 degrees directly opposite the sun — on 27 July in the same year: the longest total lunar eclipse in a century.
A total solar eclipse, typically visible only at the North or South Pole, or in the middle of an ocean, took place over Indonesia on 9 March 2016. Due to its vast terrain and thus access to more frequent occurrences of such events, Indonesia is poised to become a leading country for astronomical observances in the future. Tourists can also flock to Thailand’s Koh Kood or Myanmar’s Bagan, relatively less crowded areas for stargazing in the region.
In contrast, the space race between aerospace corporations such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic increases emissions (released by the fuel-operated space crafts and the construction of spaceports), thins the ozone layer, and accelerates climate change and global warming. Moreover, the exorbitant costs of flights to space, ranging from a quarter of a million dollars to US$50 million per seat, cater to the rich elite and alienate budding astronomers. Thankfully, the scientific community has raised concerns about the ecological destruction caused by space tourism, allowing terrestrial tourism to dominate astrotourism.
For countries and localities with higher levels of light pollution, such as Singapore and some parts of Malaysia and Vietnam, terrestrial tourism is impossible since artificial lighting acts like a fog that obscures the light from faint stars. However, this does not mean that locals and tourists in these countries cannot enjoy the same astronomical experience. With investment in astronomical facilities, namely observatories and scientific telescopes, the Singapore Science Centre Observatory, Malaysia’s JAC Johor Astronomy Observatory, and Vietnam’s Nha Trang Observatory have circumvented the issue of light pollution.
Southeast Asian countries have also made their mark in space by giving meaningful names to previously unnamed exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) and their stars discovered by scientists. Seven countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) successfully managed to do so during the competition held by the International Astronomical Union on 17 December 2019. The new names are often linked to the culture and heritage of these countries that can be showcased to the world. For example, the Philippines’ exoplanet Haik and its star Amansinaya are named after deities associated with the sea in Tagalog mythology, which is believed to bring protection to fishermen at sea. Similarly, Singapore’s exoplanet Viculus and its star Parumleo are Latin terms meaning “small village” and “little lion”, respectively, symbolising the humble beginnings of the nation-state.
Being latecomers to space activities, Southeast Asian countries rely on international cooperation with countries that have long established themselves in this field, such as the US, China, Japan and India, for funds, technology and talent development. Specifically, satellite applications have garnered strong interest from Southeast Asian countries in advancing the sharing of information via cloud computing to predict natural disasters and climate change. For example, the Thailand Earth Observation Satellite helps Vietnam and Myanmar in monitoring disaster areas, while supporting Thailand and Laos in tracking tourist arrivals. Another example of regional cooperation is the ASEAN Sub-Committee on Space Technology and Application — fully funded by ASEAN members — which meets biannually to expedite space technology transfer and conduct training workshops.
Despite its benefits, the public may question the huge expenditure required to invest in space activities and technologies (even for terrestrial tourism). In the case of the Philippines, however, strong public support for such activities has resulted in the passing of a law to establish a national space programme in 2018, which previously failed in 2012.
Striking a right balance between investing in scientific advancement versus increasing social welfare is important. In fact, the governments of Vietnam and Laos have been criticised for their spending on space technologies instead of focusing on social and economic development to lift their populations out of poverty.
Astrotourism, especially in the form of terrestrial tourism, has economic and environmental benefits for Southeast Asian countries. Yet, critics deem the exorbitant investment in space technology for terrestrial and space tourism unreasonable if this is done at the expense of the population’s well-being.
Southeast Asia is not just a region rich in culture and traditions; if one simply pauses and looks above, one can appreciate the beauty of the night sky and other astronomical phenomena that are only observable in this area.
This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 1/2023 published in March 2023. Download the full issue here.
Charmaine Leong was a Research Intern at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS—Yusof Ishak Institute. She is an undergraduate student at the College of Humanities and Sciences, National University of Singapore.