KANARRAVILLE, Iron County — As one of the best places on Earth to view the annular solar eclipse May 20, the sleepy town of Kanarraville may prove to be a tourism hot spot this year.
As Iron County prepares for the thousands of travelers expected to visit for the eclipse — which will feature the moon almost completely blocking the sun, except for an outer ring — astro-tourism is becoming an important buzzword for the local tourism trade.
"I heard of the concept two years ago," said Bonnie Oldroyd, a public relations specialist for the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau. "I thought, 'What the heck is astro-tourism?' I did some research and found out we have astro-tourism."
Defined simply as traveling to study astronomy and observe the sky, astro-tourism has been a staple of Iron County for years, Oldroyd said, citing the annual Bryce Canyon National Park Astronomy Festival, stargazing parties at Cedar Breaks National Monument and the solstice events at Parowan Gap as examples.
Brian Salazar of Las Vegas said he considers himself an astro-tourist, and he makes yearly visits to southern Utah to take advantage of the area's dark nighttime skies.
"That's a resource we just don't have in Vegas," he said.
Though the primary reason he visits the area is to watch the Utah Shakespeare Festival, he said he always packs his telescope and spends time gazing at the sky.
"I drive up to Cedar Breaks or out west to the desert … and the Milky Way looks like a river of stars. It's amazing," he said.
Oldroyd said more tourists are becoming interested in astro-tourism thanks to the attention from the upcoming annular solar eclipse.
"We know a busload of people are planning to attend from astronomy societies in Salt Lake City," she said. "Hotels and the tourism bureau will reach out to other clubs within our driving demographic."
Kanarraville, with a population of approximately 300 people, will rely on Iron County public safety workers to help deal with the traffic and safety for the estimated 5,000 tourists expected to descend on the town, Oldroyd said.
David Ence, the town clerk for Kanarraville, said the town's main focus will be to mitigate safety and sanitation issues.
"The sweet-spot viewing area will be south of town in Iron County, so we are working to get parking and transportation to the area," Ence said. "We are also asking private land owners to help by offering parking or viewing areas on their land."
Oldroyd said the tourism bureau is working with hotels in Cedar City to provide special eclipse packages for the date.
"The attention this brings should bring more attention to the skies we have in Iron County," Oldroyd said. "Travelers are becoming more savvy and aware, and dark skies are a key element to viewing the night skies and attracting this type of tourism."
Salazar said he feels a "pang of guilt" when he stargazes in southern Utah because of the slight glow in the western sky from Las Vegas.
"It's silly, I know, but some of that glow comes from my street," the Las Vegas resident said. "I wish we could see this sky from Vegas, but we just can't."
Oldroyd said the dark skies bring more tourist dollars to the area, and some cities have ordinances preventing contractors from installing lights that shine into the sky.
"There is an issue with that with property owners' rights," Oldroyd said. "That's why it needs to be a community effort. The more people get excited about having a clear, dark sky, the more they will be willing to have lights that don't shine into the sky."