Afghan (And Space) Tourism

According to the Telegraph, Afghanistan is getting ready for tourists again. It may be that this is the first industry to recover in that beleaguered country, and it will be a significant one, since now many who had previously barely heard of the place will be interested in seeing it.

I find this personally interesting because I think that it says something profound about the nature of the modern economy that could have an impact on our future space activities.

There is a long-standing debate in the space policy community as to whether space tourism (assuming that it occurs at all on a large-scale–that it will occur on a small scale now has an existence proof in the person of Dennis Tito) will be a cause or a consequence of space development.

Most “traditional” space analysts believe that if space tourism occurs, it will happen after technology has sufficiently advanced to make space travel affordable. They make the historical analogy that tourism has never before led the development of a frontier, and it won’t do so for space either.

I (and some others, such as Dr. Patrick Collins, an economist at the Japanese Space Agency and Tom Rogers at the Space Transportation Association) argue that absent a large market like tourism, the costs of space access will never be reduced, because it is not fundamentally a technology problem–it is a problem of lack of economies of scale.

Furthermore, historical analogies on this particular subject have little relevance because the nature of the economy has changed. In the past, tourism was not a major part of the economy. Now, depending on how you do the bookkeeping, it is perhaps the second largest industry in the world, after energy.

In this formulation, developing a robust market for public space travel will create the infrastructure, both for earth-orbit transportation, and on orbit, that will enable many of the other things that space enthusiasts propose (e.g., solar power satellites, space manufacturing, lunar science bases, space settlements, etc.).

One other related item.

NASA Watch provides a link to a story in the Hunstville Times about the closure of the Space Camp in California, due to declining attendance, and increasing debt load of the Space Camp Foundation…

The story describes the bare fact that attendance is down, but doesn’t discuss any possible reasons for it.

Is this a bad sign for space tourism (I don’t think so myself, but I’m interested in other points of view)?

After all, one of the indicators that many use to show support for public space travel is the large existing terrestrial space tourism market, as represented by visits to the National Air and Space Museum, and various space museums and attractions, etc., in Florida.

This article indicates that the Florida space tourism activities are down. How about attendance at NASM? How much of it is due to 911, and how much to declining general interest in space among the public?

I’ve never been a big Space Camp fan myself, and still think that there may be a market for a space tourist-themed resort that is less NASA/science/Shuttle focused.

But for those who believe, as I do, that space tourism is the best hope for a viable and self-sustaining free-enterprise space industry, these represent both encouraging (Afghan) and troubling (Space Camp) trends. Not enough data to make a judgement either way here, but after the ripples in the pond from the 911 boulder die down, it will be worthwhile to take another look at the prospects for the global tourism industry, and reassess the implications for space development.