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They can’t see stars at home so they’re flocking to see them here. Astro-tourism - putting the twinkle into Tekapo. Frank Film visits after dark. #NZOnAir

Tekapo’s Church of the Good Shepherd is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions. While visitors flock to photograph the iconic church by day, at night they are coming to point their cameras directly to the heavens.

Pull up into the church car park after the sun goes down and you’ll find a swarm of international visitors, many capturing, on even the smallest digital camera, incredible images of a galaxy they’ve never seen with the naked eye.

Frank Film’s latest episode in its Changing South series delves into the advent of astro-tourism in the South Canterbury town.

Stargazing opportunities are bringing hundreds of tourists to Tekapo each night.

One couple from Shanghai says while they do see a “few stars” at home, it is “nothing like this.”

Alan Gilmore, Former Superintendent of Canterbury University’s Mt John Observatory, says “Tekapo is in a mountain basin … and that keeps out the low coastal cloud that gives us a lot of clear nights compared to other places in New Zealand.”

To protect visibility and prevent light pollution the Mackenzie District Council imposed lighting restrictions on the town as far back as the 1980s, a move Graeme Murray calls “forward thinking.”

Years after that council decision, Murray paired up with Hide Ozawa to offer the first astro-tourism venture at the top of Mt John, where Canterbury University’s telescopes have long been based.

As Frank Film discovers, telescopes aren’t needed to take in the wonder of the night sky, with the Milky Way galaxy and many planets visible to the naked eye.

“One beautiful, clear night on the top of Mt John under a pristine, dark sky,” recalls Murray, , “Hide had a wee chat to me, that New Zealanders did not appreciate the asset they had in the night sky.”

From a humble coffee cart, the pair have now partnered with Ngai Tahu Tourism to form the Dark Sky Project, a venture which offers a mulit-media indoor experience and night sky tours.

“Our staff from two, 14 years ago, to this summer sitting around 110 I think, all to do with the stars,” says Murray.

The Mackenzie night sky is recognised internationally as a Dark Sky Reserve and there have been attempts in the past to gain UNESCO World Heritage status. Mackenzie District Mayor, Graham Smith, wonders how the town would cope, amid his estimate that visitor numbers are doubling year-on-year.

“If we got World Heritage status ... we would seriously have to contemplate how we were going to manage the tourists.”