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Astrotourism: NCNU crafts Taiwan into a first-class stargazing destination

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Heeding the Executive Yuan's call for community empowerment and regional revitalization, National Chi Nan University (NCNU) is working with local alliances and grassroots groups in Nantou County's Ren'ai Township to transform the mountainous heart of Taiwan into a world-class stargazing destination.

The "Celestial Mountain Citadel Strategy (星空山城戰略計畫)" drafted by NCNU and community partners was submitted to the National Development Council (NDC) this month to present the tourism potential of this elegant venture. By the Nantou County Government's estimate, the successful growth of a new industry chain would bring a 15% increase in wealthy tourists for the well-established Cingjing recreational mountain area, translating into an additional NT$460 million in revenue, thanks to the region's pristine starry skies.

NDC Deputy Minister Yu Chien-hwa (游建華) led a delegation comprising officials from the Ministry of Culture, Council of Agriculture, Council of Indigenous Affairs, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Transportation and Communications on a two-day survey of Ren'ai Township. The April 23-24 trip was sufficient enough to convince the delegation of the first-class potential of the "Celestial Mountain Citadel Strategy."

From the Taiwan Dark-Sky Preservation Alliance (星空守護聯盟) to Cingjing-based groups for tourism and sustainable development, dark-sky-friendly businesses, cultural associations, and indigenous coalitions, the formidable network spearheaded by NCNU is fully prepared to help more people around the world learn about Taiwan's rich stargazing resources.

Lee Tsung-hsiu (李從秀), who chairs the Cingjing Sustainable Development Association (清境永續發展協會), explains that Taiwan's largest observational astronomers' group, the Taiwan Dark-Sky Preservation Alliance, was established in response to a grassroots dark-sky movement that began here at Cingjing in 2012. The alliance has almost 20,000 registered members, encompassing astronomers and scientists, photographers, tourism-related business operators, and even representatives from manufacturers of optics and precision equipment. Because of this passionate network of hobbyists and professionals, launching a new industry chain for astrotourism in Nantou can be done with relative ease and efficiency.

Taiwan is uniquely positioned on Earth, with latitudinal and longitudinal advantages that allow stargazers here to behold 82 out of the 88 constellations officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). As such conditions are rarely met elsewhere, star-chasers from neighboring Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong all fly to Taiwan. Lee recalls meeting members of a Japanese stargazing tour group who were ecstatic to see the Southern Cross, which is also known as the constellation of Crux, as well as Canopus, the brightest star in the Carina constellation, from the vantage of Nantou's Cingjing mountains.

Henry Wu (吳文欽), a photographer special to National Geographic and member of the Taiwan Dark-Sky Preservation Alliance, shares his story of how he traveled extensively across Taiwanese mountains over a decade ago in pursuit of an ideal spot for establishing a professional observatory, only to finally invest in Cingjing because of its excellent conditions for enjoying the night's beauty. For one, the region's majestic elevation supersedes low-level clouds that hang at 2,000 meters above sea level, giving photographers an unparalleled view of the skies.

Tseng Yung-ping (曾永平), NCNU Chief Secretary and former senior consultant to the Sun-Moon Lake Tourism Board, outlines his vision for an ambient "starry belt" serving astrotourism that would start from Provincial Highway 14's Cingjing stop and wind its way up Hehuanshan, Taiwan's 43rd highest peak. This U-shaped pincer strategy will help rein in more international astro-tourists, deepen exchanges with global astronomy institutes, and bring social transformation to Ren'ai. The university also plans to introduce stargazing business strategies to indigenous communities, of which there are 3 villages and 6 tribes in that region.

Explaining that many different ethnic groups call Ren'ai Township home, Tseng counts ethnic minorities from China's Yunnan Province as well as the Taiwanese tribes of Bunun, Atayal, and Seediq among them. Moreover, many indigenous cultures around the world have their own stargazing cultures. For example, the W-shaped Cassiopeia constellation has long been viewed as a heavenly icon of archery by star-watching tribes here.

Tseng proposes the establishment of a local museum or cultural hall to house historic and indigenous artifacts relating to astronomy. This center could then create a constellation of astrotourism hotspots by working with tribal settlements to launch new observation sites, train more star guides, and develop sustainable business models that would protect both the environment and their traditional ways of life.

This proposal was met with good grace from the representative of the Council of Indigenous Peoples, who commented that his council is always supportive of initiatives that enhance the employment opportunities and talent retention of indigenous settlements.

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