Chernobyl: From ghost city to tourist magnet

St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev; photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on the April 16, 1986 following a failed safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then a republic of the Soviet Union. The massive nuclear explosion led to the evacuation of more than 117,000 residents, creating an exclusion zone with a 19-mile radius surrounding the plant. Pripyat, a city neighbouring the plant, was abandoned and remains a bleak “ghost city” up to today.

This notorious episode of modern history has been dramatised by American network HBO in the five-part TV mini-series Chernobyl, which aired in May 2019. The historical drama, starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, is based on real-life stories about the disaster as recollected by locals. The show met with phenomenal acclaim, boasting a 9.5 rating on IMDB and a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The sensational series created much intrigue surrounding its eponymous location. Thousands of fans flocked to Chernobyl to view the setting of the popular show. Travel companies that lead tours to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone reported a 40% rise in bookings following the debut of the series. The State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management further reported that the disaster site saw 12,591 visitors in May 2019 alone, exceeding the total number of visitors in 2014 by more than 4,000 people.

The Pripyat “ghost town”; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tours to Chernobyl offer a range of thought-provoking itineraries that allow tourists to experience first-hand the horrors left by the disaster. Visitors explore deserted villages, where schools, dwellings, clothes and vehicles abandoned by former residents stand testimony to the mass evacuation. The robotics remaining in Pripyat allow visitors to see how toxic materials were removed from the city following the disaster, while memorials allow them to pay respects to victims. Tourists can even survey the infamous fourth reactor where the explosion began.

Following the momentous public interest, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree on July 10 that confirmed the development of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone into an official tourist site. A green corridor will be built for tourists, along with new walking trails, waterways and checkpoints. The plan also includes an electronic ticketing system that aims to enhance convenience and transparency. Additionally, the decree lifted an existing ban on videotaping in the exclusion zone, allowing tourists more liberty in documenting their travels.

President Volodymyr Zelensky signs a decree on the development of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone; photo: President of Ukraine Official Website

The rich history and culture of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital (two hours away from Chernobyl), is another pull that attracts tourists from all over the world. Its city centre comprises churches, historical monuments and museums, such as St Sophia’s Cathedral, which encompasses more than 1,000 years of history and is renowned for its outstanding architecture. The Strategic Missile Forces Museum, a three-hour drive from Kiev, exhibits decommissioned nuclear weapons and hardware, offering a rare insight into Ukraine’s military history. Kiev also offers a range of gastronomical delights, such as cottage cheese pancakes, sausages and borscht soup with garlic doughnuts.

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