Some locales are inextricably linked with the movies or television shows filmed there: Take New Zealand, which has a thriving tourism industry centered on The Lord of the Rings franchise, or the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, which provided the backdrop for “Game of Thrones” settings such as King’s Landing and Qarth and is frequented by fans of the hit drama. But few would have predicted that Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident and the subject of a new five-part HBO miniseries, would emerge as one of the year’s prime pop culture tourism destinations.
As Max Hunder reports for Reuters, Chernobyl tourist agency SoloEast Travel attracted 30 percent more bookings in May 2019 than it did in May 2018. Bookings for June, July and August have risen by 40 percent since the program’s premier last month.
Comparably, tour operator Chernobyl Tour tells Hunder it has experienced a 30 to 40 percent jump in bookings; the agency has already capitalized on the lure of the television series by offering a tour of the real-life locations depicted onscreen.
“Chernobyl,” the mini-series leading the surge of interest in the disaster, has received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. The dramatized depiction of the April 26, 1986 accident, starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, largely sticks to the facts, though there are dramatic liberties taken in the story. (Series creator Craig Mazin’s official podcast separates truth from invention episode-by-episode, and outlets including Business Insider, Vox and the Week have published comprehensive fact-checks on the program’s version of events.) The series is currently the top-rated TV show on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), boasting an overall score of 9.6 out of 10.
According to Hunder, Chernobyl tours typically begin with a 75-mile bus ride from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to the 1,000-square-mile “exclusion zone” surrounding the ruins of the nuclear power plant. Monuments to victims, abandoned villages and even the reactor at the center of the disaster are among the tour’s scheduled stops; Pripyat, a ghost town that once housed 50,000 residents, many of whom worked at the plant, is often the final destination of the day.
As Victor Korol of SoloEast, tells CNN’s Tamara Hardingham-Gill, the two most popular sites with tourists are the reactor, which is visible from an observation point situated a safe distance away from the “massive steel sarcophagus” enclosing the contraption’s remains, and a Ferris wheel found in Pripyat’s amusement park. The ride, scheduled to open in time for May Day 1986, was never used.
Writing for the Washington Post, Rick Noack gets to the main issue raised by Chernobyl and other “disaster tourism” hotspots: “How should we commemorate a human-made disaster of the scale of Chernobyl without turning the site that exposed hundreds of thousands to radiation into an adventure theme park?”
Last November, the Guardian’s Megan Nolan participated in a Chernobyl tour for a work assignment. In lieu of the miniseries’ popularity and subsequent local tourism boom, she reflected on her experience. Although a passport and radiation level check conducted prior to entering the exclusion zone added levity to the tour, Nolan argues that the serious nature of the visit was undercut by vendors selling snacks from radiation symbols on the labels, gas masks and rubber protective gear, even Chernobyl-themed ice cream.
Speaking with the Washington Post’s Noack, Sergii Ivanchuk of SoloEast had harsh words for venders capitalizing on the disaster, calling their business “disgusting and humiliating to those people who still work in Chernobyl or who come to visit their abandoned houses.” He added that SoloEast only keeps 15 to 18 percent of the revenue generated by the tours, pointing out that the majority of the proceeds go to the Ukrainian government.
Chernobyl’s exclusion zone opened to tourists in 2011, 25 years after the accident that killed 31 within days and exposed millions to high levels of radiation. Although visits are still strictly regulated, radiation levels have now fallen enough to render risks negligible. As Korol of SoloEast tells CNN’s Hardingham-Gill, the average Chernobyl tourist is exposed to less radiation than the amount released by a chest x-ray.
“It's the most popular question visitors ask," Korol says. "But it's absolutely safe. The government would never allow tourists to come otherwise.”