'Chernobyl' attracts tourists to nuclear disaster zone, but at what cost?

  • Europe
  • Sunday, 13 Oct 2019

Tourists at the New Safe Confinement, a metal dome encasing the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl.

Emmy-winning TV miniseries Chernobyl has attracted a new generation of tourists to the nuclear disaster zone in the Ukraine, but guides say that many are more interested in taking selfies than learning about the nuclear disaster of April 1986.

“They do not need information any more; they just want to take a selfie,” said official plant guide Yevgen Goncharenko at Chernobyl. Now, tourists are on the lookout for locations featured in the HBO drama and are surprised to discover that certain sites on the TV show were fictional.

The hard-hitting historical series recreates one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, when one of the reactors at the Soviet Union plant exploded during testing. The blast spewed radiation over a vast swathe of Europe.

A 30km exclusion zone remains in place around the plant, although a small part of it is open to a growing number of tourists. The abandoned site had already become a dark tourism destination in recent years, even before the TV event premiered.

Some Ukrainian travel agencies have also adapted their tours to take in locations from the Chernobyl series and now offer further special trips, such as kayaking in rivers around the exclusion zone.

Oleksandr Syrota, head of the Chernobyl information centre, said that certain tourist companies were offering up the disaster zone as “fast food” – a quick and easy travel experience. And the trend towards more tourists looks set to continue.

In July, new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (currently involved in a huge political scandal with Donald Trump) signed a decree that aims to develop the site further as a tourist attraction.

Tourists at the New Safe Confinement, a metal dome encasing the destroyed reactor at Chernobyl.

Louis Carlos, a 27-year-old traveller visiting from Brazil, said he didn’t know much about the disaster before watching the TV series but was motivated to travel to Ukraine to find out more.

“If people come here to understand what happened and try to learn, it’s a good thing,” said Carlos, as a friend took a photo of him next to the nuclear power station. “It’s history,” he added.

Tourist numbers have steadily increased every year. In 2018, 72,000 people visited Chernobyl. The tour operators’ association working in the region said it expects the number to jump to 100,000 this year.

Zone guide Goncharenko, who accompanies tourists on visits by private companies, said he’d experienced such booms before. One came after the release of the US horror movie Chernobyl Diaries in 2012, and also mentioned the impact of the site in the Call Of Duty video game series.

“Sometimes people who came after the computer games seriously asked where one can find mutants,” he recalled.

Shortly after the award-winning Chernobyl aired on TV, social media users came under fire for sharing “sexy” and “upbeat” photos from the ghost town of Pripyat, a once city of nearly 50,000 near Chernobyl that was evacuated after the explosion.

Kayaking along the Uzh river in the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine. Photos: AFP

Craig Mazin, who wrote and produced the TV series, has addressed the controversy on Twitter. “Yes, I’ve seen the photos going around,” he wrote in June. “If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed.”

Yaroslav Yemelianenko, head of the Chernobyl tour guide association, admits the region had become a trendy place to visit. But instead of fixating on the tragic aspect, he said Kiev should promote the exclusion zone as a place of reflection about the disaster. “We need to promote it, talk about it, attract people here.”

Some, like Slovenian tourist Jan Mavrin, said they came to pay tribute to those who had lost their lives. “You’ve got to have some sort of respect towards this kind of place,” said Mavrin, taking a photo of the Ferris wheel at Pripyat’s abandoned amusement park. “You should be modest; you shouldn’t just walk around picking (up) stuff.”

Visitors – those on official tours and the so-called “stalkers” who break in illegally – have been known to take objects out of the exclusion zone as souvenirs, according to Syrota of the Chernobyl information centre.

“Even we Pripyat natives do not allow ourselves to pick up our own things from there,” he said. “And then we are surprised when we see them on eBay.”

Syrota said it was “hard to imagine” where the government’s plans for more tourism at the site could lead and stressed that space was limited. “We have no experience of what this can turn into,” he says. – AFP

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