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The Next Economy
Cosmohub Opens Travelers’ Eyes to India's Skies While Supporting Local Communities

Astrostays launched in 2019 to promote tourism while training local youth in astronomy to show off the Himalayas’ night sky. Now, Cosmohub is a more scalable, sustainable model — a connected community space that highlights local folklore and traditions along with stargazing.

People travel around the globe to see and experience things and found nowhere else. In northern India, the sense of awe and curiosity drawn out by the mountainous landscape extends even further when guests lift their eyes to the sky.

“The Himalayas are one of the most picturesque areas — where people come to trek and be with nature — and also home to one of the best skies on the planet,” said Sonal Asgotraa, founder of Astrostays — a homestay/astrotourism initiative. “Our vision was to use that asset in the backyard to see if it could be leveraged as a tool to stimulate a new kind of revenue generation by merging astronomy and hospitality.”

In 2019, Astrostays was launched to promote local-village accommodations (often run by women) while also training local youth in astronomy to show off the Himalayas’ night sky. This has led many of these youth to stay in their rural villages rather than moving to Leh, the area’s largest city, for work.

“For us, it’s an interesting intersection of science and culture, along with tourism and technology,” said Paras Loomba, founder of Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), which initially incubated Astrostays within the company. GHE is best known for leveraging tourism to electrify remote villages in India’s Ladakh region — more than 200 to date. Over the years, the company has evolved its offerings to benefit rural communities in other ways — including equipping educational centers with solar-powered electricity and low-powered computers. Astrostays was a natural extension of its commitment to sustainable social impact and community tourism development, though it now operates as a separate entity.

In 2022, Astrostays’ newest offering — called Cosmohub — was launched near Leh. The four-room structure housing the bulk of the experience is open nightly, April through late September/early October, aligned with the region’s seasonal tourism.

“Cosmohub is a more scalable, sustainable model — which is a more connected community space that includes not just stargazing but various local elements as well,” Asgotraa said.

Where an Astrostays experience may appeal to people with a specific interest in the night sky, Cosmohub’s holistic offering invites people to learn about the night sky couched within a cultural context. The structured, three-and-a-half-hour experience starts with a guided tour through the 700-year-old local monastery, where guests are treated to stories about local traditions and spiritual beliefs. From there, guests visit the astro-museum, which melds Western scientific knowledge with Buddhist and Tibetan cosmology; this thread is pulled into the stargazing session, where local folklore is woven through the cosmos.

At Cosmohub, guests are also treated to home-cooked, traditional meals; and an onsite retail space features handicrafts and local organic products. While seven women are directly involved with operating Cosmohub, add-on features including serving food and selling handicrafts demonstrate the initiative’s financial impact deep within the community.

“It’s not just the ladies that have been associated with this, but there’s a cycle that’s been followed,” said Simar Preet Kaur, Cosmohub’s coordinator. “There are taxi drivers who take travelers from Leh to Cosmohub. There are local food vendors who we get raw materials from. Even the souvenirs we procure — the handicrafts; we procure Pashmina from local herders. These are just a few of the people involved.”

According to Cosmohub’s impact data for the 2023 season through August 31, 38 local people have been directly impacted this year.

The initiative’s first year involved extensive training, particularly in technical details, while drawing out local stories from the area. Only a couple of the women employed by Cosmohub had formal education growing up, and feedback indicates travelers have appreciated hearing their stories as well as learning from them about the rich mix of scientific-based astronomy with place-based folklore.

“Initially, the women were shy, hesitant — they had never interacted with tourists before,” Kaur said. “Once the travelers came and started giving them compliments about the food, the session, the ideology behind the entire thing — in two or two-and-a-half months, they were really confident.”

The 2023 season has been far more organized operationally, now that logistical details are largely ironed out. Ultimately, the goal is to scale the Cosmohub experience to other areas.

“It is a replicable model. We are looking forward to replicating it in other parts of Ladakh,” Kaur said. Future plans also include offering additional knowledge training for the astronomers and investing in more marketing. “Our journey has been small, slow and organic,” Asgotraa said, “but we want to build on the momentum we have.”

“Stargazing is still looked at as a miniscule part of an experience around the world. It’s not looked at as a major experience because not many people have done it through a storytelling lens,” Loomba said. “It’s more of a scientific thing: Look at the moon, look at the stars. ‘Oh, very nice.’ Take the picture. Go back home.

“But there are stories and interesting folktales,” he added. “The telescope part might take two minutes; but the whole scenario of just watching the dark sky, taking this all in, is such a different world of tourism.”

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