Solar eclipse mania spurs festivals, tours, sold-out hotels

In this May 20, 2012, file photo, the annular solar eclipse produces flare through a lens in Alameda, California.

AP

It is the height of irony — the world’s spotlight will shine on Southern Illinois for two minutes and 40 seconds Aug. 21 because the region will be cloaked in darkness.

Southern Illinois will become the scientific center of the universe for 160 seconds as the moon blots out the sun in a total eclipse. Total solar eclipses aren’t rare — a total eclipse is visible somewhere on earth roughly every 18 months.

But, according to space.com, the shadow cast by the moon is small, only about 70 miles wide. Therefore, a total solar eclipse is visible from any specific spot on earth just once every 360 years.

To some of us, the coming eclipse is truly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Others, for various reasons, are experiencing eclipse fatigue weeks before the actual event as eclipse-centered art, crafts, banners, T-shirts and other souvenirs invade the senses at every turn.

To those people tired of hearing and reading about one of the universe’s great natural marvels — it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

Southern Illinois, as it should be, is undergoing eclipse immersion.

The region is also preparing for an expected onslaught of visitors. Eclipse viewing activities are scheduled throughout Southern Illinois … from an eclipse festival in Chester, to a live broadcast of Planetary Radio from Southern Illinois University’s Shryock Auditorium, to an Eclipse Comic-Con event at SIU’s Student Center. World-famous scientific entities will set up shop in Saluki Stadium, including staff from NASA and the Adler Planetarium.

Although there are some local naysayers, this is a big deal, scientifically, and for Southern Illinois.

How big?

GreatAmericanEclipse.com suggests visitors arrive at their viewing location a day, preferably two, in advance. The website suggests interstate highways in the path of the total eclipse will become virtual parking lots Aug. 21.

Eclipse viewers are warned to be self-sufficient — carry food, water and toilet paper. And make sure their gas tanks are topped off. Oh, and calling someone on your mobile phone? The systems are likely to be overwhelmed.

These aren’t encouraging words for those already experiencing eclipse fatigue.

To the rest of us, this is clearly an opportunity for Southern Illinois. This is a chance for communities from Chester to Carbondale, from Cahokia to Carterville to put their best foot forward.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service are promoting the eclipse with programs leading up to the event. There are web pages dedicated to the best areas to view the eclipse from public property. The sites include the number of available parking spaces — vital information if the eclipse draws the kind of crowds that are anticipated.

With that in mind, it is also important to note that the total eclipse will last a maximum of 160 seconds and people are being advised to arrive a day or two in advance.

Obviously, those visitors to our region, whether or not they packed their own toilet paper, will be looking for entertainment, food and sights to see. The region has the opportunity for national exposure that a multi-million-dollar ad campaign could not buy.

There is just once chance to make a good first impression, and for Southern Illinois, this is it.

Residents of the region are well-versed on many things that make Southern Illinois unique. For many traveling hundreds of miles to experience the eclipse, this will likely be their first foray into Southern Illinois.

While it is unreasonable to think that a once-in-360-year event will turn the region’s economy around, we need to view this as the opportunity it is. Getting someone to visit once is the hard part. It is up to us — civic organizations, villages, towns, counties and individual citizens — to make Southern Illinois a return destination.

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