SCOTLAND could become the first country in Europe to have internationally recognised "dark sky parks" where visitors could go to enjoy the full spectacle of the night sky.
A campaign to make people more aware of the importance of dark skies has been launched to mark the 400th anniversary in 2009 of the discoveries of the astronomer Galileo. Next year has also been designated the International Year of Astronomy.
Steve Owens, co-ordinator of the project in the UK, said he was hopeful parts of Scotland would become officially recognised by the International Dark Sky Association.
There are currently two internationally recognised dark sky parks in the United States and one in Canada, but as yet no area in Europe has been deemed perfect for dark sky gazing.
Mr Owens said he had been working with a number of organisations, including the country's National Parks and Galloway Forest Park towards winning dark sky park status.
He said: "I certainly think Scotland has the best dark skies in Europe."
The new initiative follows the success of Dark Sky Scotland, co-ordinated by the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, which drew more than 5,000 people to events across Scotland last year. The organisation is applying for funding to continue its work into 2009, including plans for "dark sky discovery sites" where city dwellers could learn to appreciate the night sky.
A spokesman for VisitScotland, which is working closely with Dark Sky Scotland, said: "The night sky could be as important for tourism as the landscape."
Mr Owens said he believed Scotland was in a unique position to benefit from dark sky tourism. "I've studied the stars from remote areas all over the world," he said. "Nowhere is the atmosphere so clear as in Scotland, because the rain clears the skies and so, on a good night, the view is spectacular.
"More than half of the world's population live in urban areas and we want to get those people to take time out and look at the night sky.
"It's very early days to determine exactly the kind of market for dark sky tourism, but the UK has the highest percentage of amateur astronomers in Europe and there are thousands of people who subscribe to astronomy magazines and join societies. Places in the Western Isles and the Highlands do well attracting tourists in the summer and hopefully the dark sky parks will help them attract more visitors throughout the winter."
Organisations including the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage are believed to be looking into sites that would be suitable. A Forestry Commission spokesman said: "We would very much like to be involved with the dark sky project. Most forest estates are an ideal location for dark sky spotting."
John Brown, the Astronomer Royal and regius professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, said he was very keen to see the development of dark sky tourism in Scotland.
He said: "Scotland has some of the least light-polluted skies in Europe and it would be great to encourage more people to go out and take a look."
Prof Brown added that skies on the west coast of Scotland were the darkest, but he said that the east coast had the advantage of less-cloudy skies. He said parts of Dumfries and Galloway were excellent for dark sky watching.