Mongolia set for tourism boost

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The Independent Online
SIMON CALDER and

STEVE CONNOR

A rush of bookings is expected for trips to Outer Mongolia after yesterday's solar eclipse across Asia. The next total solar eclipse will take place in the world's coldest country in March 1997; even though March temperatures in Mongolia fall as low as -35C (-95F), astronomical holidays to the chosen viewing site north of Ulan Bator are selling fast.

Public interest in holidays based around astronomical events has grown steadily since 1986, when thousands of enthusiastic amateurs converged on places like Cairns in north Queensland for the once-in-a-lifetime visit by Halley's Comet. Eclipses are much more frequent and predictable events, with the United States space agency Nasa providing detailed predictions of timing, location and duration.

Using this data, specialist tour operators study meteorological records to find the most favourable spot on the eclipse track, then construct holidays based on the convergence of the Earth, Moon and Sun. For Michael Gill, from Solihull in the West Midlands, yesterday's total eclipse was his fifth successful viewing out of six attempts. "Every eclipse is different, and for this one the sun's corona was beautiful. You just long for more," he said.

Many of the 312 people taken to Fatehpur Sikri, near New Delhi, yesterday by Explorers Tours from Berkshire were veteran eclipse watchers. They had paid a minimum of pounds 795 for a week in India, including return flights from London and visits to the Taj Mahal in Agra and the old royal observatory in Jaipur.

Tempers flared at one point between rival groups of observers. The British contingent had arranged for part of the ancient site to be reserved for its members, but upon arrival at dawn the location was already filled with a team of Japanese astronomers plus four armed guards. British observers retreated to higher ground, amid accusations of bribery. The Japanese were also castigated for using a public address system to keep observers informed about the progress of the Moon across the surface of the Sun.

Yesterday's eclipse was regarded as painfully brief by seasoned watchers, a mere 45 seconds compared with a theoretical maximum of more than seven minutes. So as soon as the "fourth contact" took place (the moment when the Moon slipped away from the surface of the Sun), plans were being laid for other eclipses between now and the end of the Millennium. The total eclipse in the Caribbean in February 1998 is expected to attract considerably more interest than the Mongolian event, with the island of Curacao one of the favourite viewpoints. And the only total eclipse on British soil this century is scheduled for the west of Cornwall in August 1999. Although the weather omens are not promising bookings in the Truro area are already heavy.

The interest in astronomical phenomena is not restricted to amateur astronomers; as well as all the news crews at Fatehpur Sikri, two television teams were filming for documentaries to be shown in Britain.

Bruce Hardie, a retired BBC film unit manager and director of the solar section of the British Astronomical Association, missed out on yesterday's eclipse but has seen at least half a dozen others around the world. ''It's become popular with the modern-day travel. Eclipse tours are the in-thing at the moment. People go out to look around a country and include an eclipse at the same time. Some tour operators make it a feature,'' he said.

His best personal experience of totality was in Mexico in 1991 when a total solar eclipse lasted more than six minutes.

Where to watch the next eclipses

9 March 1997 for 2 minutes 50 seconds in North-east Asia

26 February 1998 for 4 minutes 9 seconds in South America and the Caribbean

11 August 1999 for 2 minutes 23 seconds in Europe, including Cornwall

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