A Starry Success: Pioneering Astro-Tourism in New Brunswick
Stéphane Picard has always had an interest in the night sky, but it was during the pandemic that he turned his stargazing hobby into Astrophotography (photographing celestial objects) – an expensive venture which spurred a business idea that is gaining traction.
“I started out by offering small star parties for groups like family reunions and kids' birthdays,” Stéphane explained.
His company, Cliff Valley Astronomy, was formed in 2022, shortly after Stéphane became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
The Quispamsis headquartered business knew the Saint John Region was the perfect home base to grow, with a certified dark sky Urban Star Park location at the Irving Nature Park– and many urban areas, such as Rockwood Park, perfectly positioned to showcase the art of astrophotography.
And with the upcoming once-in-a-lifetime Total Eclipse, there is an opportunity to put the province of New Brunswick on the astro—map.
“We have the most dark-sky sites per capita of any province,” Stéphane said. “With the Total Solar Eclipse coming to New Brunswick, I wanted to create a unique experience by offering a three-day retreat, with some speakers and activities centred around the day of the Eclipse.”
The Eclipse’s path of totality will take place on April 8th, 2024, and cross the central part of the province. Doaktown, New Brunswick is located near the path of totality, and Stéphane’s retreat will welcome visitors from around the world.
Although Saint John is outside the totality path, Stéphane explains how people in the region will still receive a special show.
“The sun will be obstructed to a maximum of 98.1 per cent at about 4:35 p.m.,” he said. “The eclipse will last in the region from 3:24 p.m. until 5:42 p.m.”
He highlights the importance of wearing certified rated eclipse protective eyewear during the entire event, and not to view the Eclipse through binoculars or telescopes, even with proper eyewear in place.
Stéphane said there is a growing interest in astronomy in the region, with the Saint John Astronomy Club seeing more than 350 people attending a recent a star party at Irving Nature Park.
“We're in a time where space is sexy again,” he said. “There is Space X, Artemis, James Webb Space Telescope, and thousands of amateur astrophotographers like myself posting pictures on social media, bringing an Instagram factor.”
He explains how 80 percent of Americans do not see the Milky Way from where they live, but in New Brunswick – no matter where you live – you only need to drive 10 minutes to see something spectacular in the night sky.
As Stéphane looks past the April Eclipse event, he is taking the opportunity to grow the Astro-Tourism industry, partnering with dark sky destinations and dozens of tourism operators and organizations to offer an Astro experience.
“Today, we are partnering with 11 accommodations across the province to offer an itinerary for a unique astronomy experience,” he said.
One of the goals with Cliff Valley Astronomy is to turn day trippers into overnight guests. He explained how the economic impact from an average family of four triples if they have a reason to stay overnight.
“We're growing at an astronomical rate,” Stéphane said. “I'm bringing on board some of my friends and colleagues in the astronomy community around the province to meet the demand for events.”
Part of Cliff Valley Astronomy’s model is also to allow others to grow their passion for the craft. Stéphane donates time and equipment back to the community by giving gently used telescopes and gear to those discovering the night sky.
To learn more about Cliff Valley Astronomy and to join upcoming events, visit their website here: https://www.cliffvalleyastronomy.com/