The sky’s the limit: Developing astro tourism in Durham

Publication Date: 19th Dec 2022

Winter is setting in, with its dark nights and frosty mornings traditionally signifying the end of the main tourist season.

In Durham, this is certainly not the case. For when it comes to astro tourism, the season is just getting started.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of British people cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. Yet, interest in stargazing has never been greater, and Durham is perfectly placed to meet the demand.

The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which includes large parts of the Durham Dales, has some of the darkest skies in England. In fact, there are 12 designated Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the county and on a clear moonless night you can see up to 2,000 stars at any one time.

Durham is also home to Grassholme Observatory where visitors can discover more about the distant galaxies, glowing gas clouds and planets that light up the skies.

An unmissable opportunity

At Visit County Durham, we recognise the importance of this growing market and launched our business support initiative Dark Sky Friendly Durham in 2017.  This equips businesses with all the skills and information they need to welcome people who will incorporate stargazing as part of their visit.

For not only does stargazing attract more people, but it does so at a time when visitor numbers tend to fall, thereby extending the visitor season and supporting tourism businesses. The after dark nature of stargazing also encourages people to stay overnight, which is crucial to growing the visitor economy. Did you know that the average overnight visitor spends over £350 more than someone who only comes for the day?

What’s more, businesses do not need to spend a lot of money to take advantage of astro tourism. It could be as simple as a B&B owner offering blankets and warm drinks to guests on a starry night.

Practical support

Visit County Durham offers advice and practical support to help businesses tap into astro tourism. At our free Dark Skies Business Development Workshops, businesses receive guidance on how to attract and cater for stargazers – from suggestions on how to reduce light pollution, to marketing tips and advice on the best equipment to suit all budgets. Businesses are also taken on a familiarisation visit to some of the county’s best dark sky sites led by a stargazing specialist.

More than 100 businesses have taken part in the workshops since their launch, and many have gone on to achieve Dark Sky Friendly status through the Visit County Durham self-accreditation scheme.

We also have a Dark Sky Friendly Business Toolkit packed full of useful information.

Raising awareness

Together with our partners, we actively promote Durham as a stargazing destination through our marketing and communications activity. We also supported the development of the annual North Pennines Stargazing Festival. The festival, which is organised by the North Pennines AONB Partnership, is now one of the highlights of the stargazing calendar, attracting visitors from across the country.

Shining light

Located in Cotherstone in the heart of the Durham Dales, Doe Park Caravan Site is a shining example of a Dark Sky Friendly business. The family run venue previously opened between March and September but, after promoting itself as a ‘stay and gaze’ destination, it has extended its season until the end of October. Doe Park also hosts annual star camp events as part of the North Pennines Stargazing Festival.

Find out more

Discover more about our work to develop and promote astro tourism.