World Heritage status likely for Mackenzie basin

The dome of the Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo is framed by a stunning panorama including Comet McNaught. Photo by Fraser Gunn.
The dome of the Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo is framed by a stunning panorama including Comet McNaught. Photo by Fraser Gunn.
A Tekapo tourism operator's lofty dream could become a reality, with the Mackenzie basin likely to become the world's first heritage starlight reserve next year.

That could create a major tourist attraction for the region - a recent Air NZ survey in Japan had potential tourists identifying stargazing as the top attraction to get them to New Zealand, well ahead of any other activity.

The unique proposal, outlined in a Unesco draft document, is already attracting major international attention, with Scotland and Hawaii two countries jumping on the bandwagon.

But the Mackenzie World Heritage starlight reserve is still top of the list and is likely to be approved at a Unesco conference in January, coinciding with the International Year of Astronomy.

Graeme Murray, of Tekapo, is part of the driving force behind the starlight reserve, but yesterday paid tribute to a vision which arose about seven years ago at a community workshop in Tekapo.

Concerns were raised about the effects of development, particularly at Tekapo, on the long-term future of the neighbouring Mt John Observatory and how the region's "dark sky" could be protected.

Tekapo stargazing tour operator Hide Ozawa pointed out that people did not know how valuable that dark sky was, and suggested a "park in the sky".

"The whole idea started from that dream," Mr Murray said.

An informal "starlight committee" has been formed, involving some influential people, including former member of Parliament Margaret Wilson, who is now New Zealand's Unesco representative.

She is leading the initiative and will attend the Unesco January conference to push the concept.

But Mr Murray said getting to the stage of preparing a draft proposal document and calling for submissions on the proposal was a difficult task.

"We and Unesco are still struggling with the concept because it is so unique and has never been done before. There is no process to follow so we are finding our own way," he said.

Mr Murray helped initiate the proposal during his term as chairman of the Mackenzie Tourism and Development Board.

"We wanted to better protect one of the Mackenzie's most valuable assets," he said.

Mr Murray said that the recent Air NZ survey, to identify activities that attracted older Japanese tourists to New Zealand, caused a real surprise when 72% identified stargazing as the top attraction.

Glaciers and penguins ranked second equal on 48% - coincidentally both are in close proximity at Mt Cook and Oamaru respectively.

Mt John is considered the most beautiful, easily accessible observatory in the world.