Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory

An interior view of Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory, which the East Valley Astronomy Club recommends people visit several times during the year because the astral bodies change through the seasons.

Stargazing is on the rise in Gilbert.

That’s according to Airbnb, which recently measured “astro-tourism” around the world and put Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory, located within the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, on its list of five prime North American spots.

The town had 9,400 Airbnb guest arrivals last year. This represents a 164 percent increase over last year for inbound travelers, the vacation rental giant said.

“We looked at year-over-year growth in guest arrivals to destinations close to areas certified by Fundación Starlight, or regions with dark skies identified by this foundation,” said Laura Rillos, a spokeswoman for Airbnb.

Prime dark-sky spots that are home to the best telescopes are trending among Airbnb guests globally, championing sustainable travel to remote, rural regions, she stated.

While Airbnb doesn’t actively promote dark-sky spots, its hosts share local hotspots with guests who are interested.

“Our community of hosts love sharing their favorite local activities and businesses with guests and encouraging them to visit hidden gems they may not have found otherwise, like the Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory,” Rillos said. “The observatory and the Riparian Preserve are both just the type of local secrets Airbnb hosts love sharing with their guests.”

The East Valley Astronomy Club manages the town-owned observatory. Manager Claude Haynes said the observatory is a listed attraction in tourist sites, but it doesn’t have a direct association with Airbnb.

He said the observatory, which is funded by donations, “appreciates the publicity and the recognition. We are happy about it because we do see that we are a destination for people who want to come and view from clear, less-light-polluted skies.”

Haynes is cognizant that Gilbert has less-light-polluted skies but doesn’t claim the town to be free of light pollution.

“Gilbert has a better light pollution ordinance and seems to enforce it more strictly than some of the other communities around us,” he said.

Established by the Gilbert Rotary Club in 2006, the observatory has a 16-inch telescope open for viewing every Friday and Saturday night, weather-permitting. It’s a family activity that attracts people from around the Valley.

On an average night, about 100-150 people peer through the telescope, while the numbers rise to about 200-250 during spring and winter months because sunset is earlier and there are more winter visitors in the Valley.

The observatory has recorded a steady increase in viewers over the last few years: 8,800 in 2014; 11,000 in 2015; 15,500 in 2016; and 16,000 in 2017. Since its inception, it has welcomed about 100,000 visitors.

Some are amateurs like Haynes himself, who has nurtured the pastime for 25 years. Others can be as young as 3 years old. If they can reach the lens, they will be permitted to view.

“We have lots of kids who come, and they are fascinated,” Haynes said. “Grandmothers come along and say, ‘I’ve never looked through a telescope before,’ and they are 80.”

Haynes concedes that the two main reasons for the increased viewership is the overall increase in the popularity of the Riparian Preserve, which offers hiking trails, bird walks and fishing among several other activities, and players using the Pokemon Go mobile video game who stumble upon the observatory.

The observatory also organizes special events, such as last year’s total eclipse, which drew hundreds, the monthly star parties and the night sky program for youth.

Mars will be closest to Earth since 2003 during the last few days of July.  However, because it’s not a nighttime object when the observatory opens in the evening, there won’t be a special event to coincide with the occurrence.

The club encourages people to go look at Mars in the morning sky. The red planet will be a nighttime object toward the middle of the August and until late September, when it will begin to recede.

Celestial events such as Mars’ proximity and eclipses contribute to people’s interest.

According to Airbnb, 50,000 guests from 26 countries traveled to the United States to view the total solar eclipse last summer.

“Since then, we’ve continued to see a tremendous amount of interest around traveling for astral events and stargazing, with the number of guest arrivals in prime dark sky spots climbing,” Rillos said.

The Gilbert observatory is in good company in Airbnb’s roll call.

It enjoys prominence along with Acadian Skies & Mi’kmaq near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, which had a 221 percent year-over-year growth of inbound travelers; Natural Bridges National Monument near Oljato Monument Valley, Utah, with a 70 percent year-over-year growth; National Astronomical Observatory near San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico, with a 164 percent year-over-year growth; and Mauna Kea near Kailua, Hawaii, with a 68 percent year-over-year growth of inbound travelers.

As word gets around, there may be hordes of more tourists headed this way. Can the humble town observatory handle it?

“We are always delighted when people come,” Haynes said. “The worst-case scenario would be if we had 500 people show up one night and that became the average. Then we would find another telescope; that would be a way to handle it. It’s not a bad problem to have.”

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