sCelestial Catalyst: Apolónia Rodrigues’ Igniting Leadership in Dark Sky Preservation

Apolónia Rodrigues | President | Creator and Coordinator of Dark Sky® Alqueva
Apolónia Rodrigues | President | Creator and Coordinator of Dark Sky® Alqueva

The celestial wonders are the stars, planets, galaxies, and other astronomical objects that we can see in the night sky. They are a source of wonder and inspiration for people all over the world. However, they are also fragile and can be easily damaged by light pollution and climate change.

Apolónia Rodrigues is an inspiring leader with a resolute commitment to preserving the celestial wonders. As the President, Creator and Coordinator of Dark Sky® Alqueva, her pioneering efforts have garnered remarkable recognition. The project achieved the Runner-Up award from the Ulysses Prize in 2013 and the Bronze CTW Chinese Welcome Award in 2019. Notably, Dark Sky® Alqueva secured several Tourism Oscars from the World Travel Awards as Europe’s Responsible Tourism Award 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 and World’s Responsible Tourism Award in 2021 and 2022, among other 50 awards in different categories awarded from WorldCob, Green World Awards, World Luxury Travel Awards, and many other organizations around the world.

Even amidst the challenges of 2020, Apolónia’s dedication continued to shine. As a beacon of Astro-tourism, Dark Sky® Alqueva stands as the world’s first Starlight Tourism Destination, spanning 10,000 square kilometers around Lake Alqueva. The Official Dark Sky® Observatory provides awe-inspiring experiences, with cutting-edge telescopes guiding visitors through the marvels of the cosmos.

Apolónia’s vision extends beyond astronomy, fostering a network of Dark Sky® Destinations across Portugal, including Vale do Tua as another exemple of success developed in partnership with the Regional Development Agency of Vale do Tua. These efforts form a vital mission—safeguarding the night sky’s splendor for future generations. Through her exceptional leadership, Apolónia continues to illuminate the world, bridging the gap between celestial wonder and sustainable progress.

Let’s discover the journey of the visionary behind Dark Sky® Alqueva, pioneering Astro-tourism for a sustainable future!

Stargazing Visionary

Apolónia embarked on her journey driven by a convergence of passions and opportunities. As a student, she was captivated by the intricate domains of sustainability and the intricate art of crafting, nurturing and steering destinations toward greatness. The complexity of these pursuits intrigued her, setting the stage for her remarkable path.

Reflecting on her beginnings, Apolónia reminisces, “Already when I was a student, there were two topics that seemed most interesting to me, sustainability and the creation, development and management of destinations. Both complex and therefore challenging.”

Her aspirations took root in 1999 and 2005 when life presented her with pivotal crossroads. “In 1999, I seized the opportunity to start my journey working on international projects,” she recounts. In 2005, her journey intersected with the Tourism Sustainability Group of the European Commission’s DG Grow, a momentous association that catalyzed change.

I joined a group which created the Agenda for the Sustainability and Competitiveness of European Tourism and took the first steps for ETIS, European System of Sustainability Indicators for Destinations,” she explains.

Her exposure to international projects and collaborative initiatives propelled her into an intricate dance of nurturing sustainable destinations. Apolónia acknowledges the complexity inherent in this endeavor, stating, “Defining a theme, a path, to a certain destination implies making choices that can sometimes be incompatible with other practices, with the interests of large economic and political groups.

The journey she embarked upon was not one of instant gratification. “This path can take years to bring visible benefits, especially if it is based on sustainability criteria,” she notes. Her pursuit transcended the confines of immediate results, aimed at long-term transformation and sustainability.

Apolónia’s realization was profound—a hybrid entity, transcending the boundaries of traditional public and private sectors, was essential to sustainably manage destinations. “Between public entities, in the format, they currently exist and the private sector, which is oriented towards profit, there should be a hybrid that manages to keep the focus on the long term and sustainability,” she asserts. While acknowledging the challenges, she was firm in her belief in the approach.

With determination and a profound understanding of her mission, Apolónia established the groundwork for Dark Sky® Alqueva. This endeavor emerged from the first phase of the Agenda for the Sustainability and Competitiveness of European Tourism in Alqueva, evolving into Dark Sky® Alqueva in 2007. “But what results from all this is Dark Sky® Alqueva,” she proudly affirms.

Navigating the intricate landscape surrounding the creation of the Alqueva artificial lake and its accompanying development plans, Apolónia’s resilience shone through. She reflects on the challenges, “The economic crisis ended up limiting and avoiding the de-characterization of the territory and massification.” Her commitment to sustainability remained resolute, guiding her through the labyrinth of obstacles.

In the end, the result is a testament to Apolónia’s vision and perseverance—Dark Sky® Alqueva, a constellation of eleven Portuguese municipalities and thirteen Spanish municipalities, united by a common mission and vision. “Evolving, always with the same mission and vision, but adapting in order to achieve and overcome the obstacles of all kinds that we were facing along the way,” Apolónia expresses.

Astronomical Advocate

In seeking to reduce light pollution to almost zero, our mission is clear: preserving access to the night sky,” Apolónia asserts. While the goal might seem straightforward—curbing excessive lighting that squanders resources—it’s beset by intricate challenges rooted in myths and cultural norms. “Due to myths and cultural issues, this task is the real challenge,” she notes.

Daily, municipalities squander funds on misguided lighting. Apolónia laments, “Inadequate lighting, too intense, with wrong color temperature lighting things that do not need to be lit.” This formidable mission transcends boundaries, aiming to debunk myths, integrate scientific findings and transform technical decisions. Her resolve shines: “Our mission had to go beyond—become global—deconstruct myths—assimilate new knowledge.”

Championing Dark Skies

In Apolónia’s humble contribution, she wanted more real cooperation between the various stakeholders and that whoever has the power to plan and manage the territory, would do so with a clear commitment to sustainability and long-term planning without thinking about votes, short-term financial interests and lobbies.

From Constellations to Conservation

Developing a destination with two languages, cultures and identities is a challenge, yet it breaks barriers and contributes to managing vital resources,” Apolónia emphasizes. Coexisting identities and Lake Alqueva’s night sky offer potential, though territorial management complexity poses a challenge. “Benefits and potential drive us,” she notes, describing joint strategies fostered by Interreg programs.

Within the Interreg program through POCTEP—joint projects favor cross-border cooperation,” Apolónia explains. Their efforts create a sense of community while aligning with sustainability goals and safeguarding the night sky—a crucial tourist asset. “We move forward with our mission to protect this important resource,” she states.

Cosmic Coinage

In 2007, Apolónia birthed Portugal’s first Astro-tourism destination, Dark Sky® Alqueva. A visionary in sustainable and future-focused tourism, Apolónia crafted the Dark Sky® concept to enhance skills and shape a brighter future.

Achieving certification in 2011, it stands as the world’s pioneer Starlight Tourism Destination and cross-border Starlight Destination, spanning 10,000 square kilometers across Portuguese and Spanish territories around Alqueva Lake. But also achieving the seal of Best Tourism Village By UNWTO for Cumeada in 2021, where we have our headquarters and Observatory, helped the internationalisation.

Within, the Official Dark Sky® Observatory in Cumeada dazzles visitors with state-of-the-art telescopes for solar and celestial gazing. Miguel Claro, the official astrophotographer, captures breathtaking nocturnal landscapes and star-studded skies that beautifully marry with Alqueva’s cultural heritage.

Dark Sky® Alqueva transcends stargazing into experiential magic. The Observatory fosters cosmic journeys from planets to galaxies, while Alqueva’s vast spaces offer diverse activities like moonlit horseback rides, astrophotography workshops and twilight wine-tasting.

The Dark Sky® Alqueva Route, a partner network, enriches experiences with offerings like nighttime canoeing, ballooning over Alqueva, yoga, sports events, and more. Importantly, the partners’ authenticity can only be found on the official website.

Apolónia’s brainchild binds the celestial and terrestrial, reigniting a connection lost in urban light pollution. As a result, Dark Sky® Alqueva doesn’t just unveil the universe—it reignites passion and wonder.

Each breathtaking image captivates, nurturing a desire for the profound, untainted night sky that Dark Sky® Alqueva offers. This visionary destination isn’t just about stargazing—it’s about reconnecting with the universe and nature, crafting unforgettable moments from dawn to starry dusk in the heart of Alentejo.

Galactic Grants

This is the challenge we face,” Apolónia remarks, “as themes of night sky preservation and sustainability don’t readily gather support. Adding our non-partisan stance and cross-border scope complicates matters.” Though Astro-tourism gains traction, backing remains limited.

The work spans beyond mere tourist offerings, necessitating self-sustained resources. Hosting sessions and events, aiding Astro-tourism globally with proven experience, becomes essential for progress.

While it limits direct interventions,” Apolónia notes, “it’s the sole path to uphold our 2007 mission and vision.” With perseverance, Dark Sky® Alqueva fuels its crucial journey, fostering starry nights and sustainable futures.

Stellar Sustainability

During our astronomical sessions, Miguel Claro and Nuno Santos incorporate vital discussions on safeguarding the night sky and adopting sustainable habits,” Apolónia emphasizes. “When participants step into Dark Sky® Alqueva’s realm and snap pictures, they instantly grasp the contrast between our preserved, certified sky and light-polluted alternatives.”

Indeed, as Miguel underlines, astrophotography in this pristine night sky serves as a powerful tool for advocacy and awareness. “It’s an immersive experience that conveys the message effectively,” Miguel explains. Through his workshops, Dark Sky® Alqueva educates while igniting a passion for a starry universe worth protecting.

Constellations of Change

Dark Sky® Alqueva is a realization of my sustainable destination development model, which I’ve been cultivating since my involvement with the Tourism Sustainability Group (TSG) in 2005,” Apolónia explains. “Sustainability is the bedrock of our approach, embedded in our daily operations, supported in the field by our team member Rebecca Slade.”

TSG’s mission was to formulate the Agenda for the Sustainability and Competitiveness of European Tourism, aligning perfectly with my training in Tourism Management and Planning, inspiring a reimagined approach to destination creation and management.

The challenge lies in transcending organizational and competency boundaries, enabling sustainable, long-term planning independent of political cycles. This empowers a destination to be developed cohesively, unencumbered by fragmented decision-making.

While navigating these challenges comes with costs to the destination’s appeal, Dark Sky® Alqueva remains dedicated to its mission. By collaborating with international entities like One Planet Travel with Care and endorsing the Glasgow Declaration, Dark Sky® Alqueva extends its reach beyond boundaries, echoing its core vision.

Galactic Guardians

Preserving the night sky has proven to be a formidable challenge, largely due to the gradual loss of sky quality that often goes unnoticed,” says Apolónia. “Light pollution discussions have been overlooked due to various interests, downplaying its negative effects, overlapping safety myths and complex factors that obscure the issue.”

The strategy has been to convey the possibility of balanced development while protecting the night sky—something achievable through collective effort and informed choices. In rural settings, the approach combines multiple endeavors, aiming to achieve nearly zero light pollution and emphasizing the benefits for the economy, environment and well-being.

Despite its complexity, a strategy emerged: certifying the sky’s quality, thus recognizing the region’s potential. “Dark Sky® Alqueva’s Starlight Tourism Destination certification by the Starlight Foundation in April 2011 marked a pivotal milestone,” Apolónia explains.

Being named the world’s first Starlight Tourism Destination garnered national and international visibility.” This distinction heightened awareness, not just of the area’s potential and pride, but also of the necessity to safeguard this resource. Certification alone isn’t a guaranteed triumph.

A dedicated push into international markets led to recognition, increased tourism and over 50 international awards. These accolades span sustainability, luxury, attraction and responsibility, collectively contributing to Dark Sky® Alqueva’s growing success and global recognition.

Uniting Stars, Uniting Causes

Our focus has always been on safeguarding our region through sustainable, non-mass tourism that respects and enhances its well-being,” Apolónia emphasizes. “Quality and sustainability are paramount, deterring the risks associated with rapid, vote-driven investments that disregard long-term costs.”

Although the capacity to mitigate such issues is limited due to the non-public status, tangible outcomes become strongest advocates. Engaging with visitors, we champion awareness—of both the night sky and the environment—empowering each individual to create positive change, not only during their stay but also when they return home.

As Apolónia underscores, “Every contribution counts and together, we can make a meaningful impact on our destination and beyond.” The goal is clear: striking a harmonious balance between progress, preservation and education for the betterment of all.

The Stardust Path

The journey through Astro-tourism, sustainability and destination creation has been a process of accumulating knowledge,” Apolónia reflects, “where every factor—time, location, politics, and more—shapes the trajectory’s success or setbacks.”

Her expertise underscores the importance of sustained planning, integrating sustainability into every facet of destination development. “The most significant impact,” she notes, “lies in revealing the necessity of long-term strategies. Sustainability isn’t just a checkbox—it’s a crucial thread woven into planning, development and execution. Merging research and science into strategy reaps rewards.”

Apolónia’s approach demands an open-minded perspective, understanding destinations as intricate, dynamic systems. This worldview molds her strategy, ensuring goals align with the complexity of the world around us.

Ultimately,” she adds, “success hinges on embracing a holistic perspective, channeling it into every step of the journey.” The result? A blueprint for fostering thriving, sustainable destinations rooted in lasting value.

The Aurora of Change

Our journey has transformed us into a school of sustainability,” Apolónia notes, emphasizing, “we’re eager to share our hard-won lessons globally.” The path to success was no cakewalk—it demanded resilience, skill-building and unwavering dedication. “Maintaining our mission amid adversity and limited understanding was no small feat,” she adds.

The results, however, provide the impetus to persist. “We remain steadfast, resisting pressures that detract from our true mission,” Apolónia asserts. Amid a landscape cluttered with fleeting results, she observes, “Many entities invest immense sums in short-term strategies, often political in nature.”

She adds, “This investment yields minimal impact and does little to foster real development.” The true strength, as she sees it, lies in the wisdom to prioritize enduring progress over momentary gains, ushering in a legacy of sustainable transformation.

Brightening the Eco-Skyline

Global sustainability is the game-changer,” Apolónia stresses, affirming, “It’s about adopting an integrated, long-term view that transcends power cycles.” This vision, she contends, must stand firm against the whims of shifting interests.

Apolónia believes in holistic destination management. “A destination isn’t just about tourism—it’s a tapestry of interconnected elements,” she asserts. “From roads to healthcare, every aspect affects both tourists and local communities.”

Yet, bridging this gap remains arduous. “Talks of cooperation abound, but practical implementation is scarce,” she laments. Having participated in countless forums, she notes a disconnect between rhetoric and action. “Cooperation requires concessions and joint effort,” Apolónia explains, “a challenging prospect when individual success is the measure.”

The solution? “More like-minded individuals and organizations,” she proposes, “to reshape the perception of sustainability in destination planning and management.” This shift, she insists, demands a collective commitment to shared goals, paving the way for a harmonious balance between development and preservation.