Chernobyl, the location of one of the most horrifying disasters in human history is today a thriving tourism destination. Just why are tens of thousands of people visiting the terrifying site every year? And what does this say about our human nature?
Chernobyl’s introduction into the tourism circuit
The fate of the city of Chernobyl and its nearby region will forever be that of being remembered for one thing, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. On the night of the 25th of April 1986, the Number 4 nuclear reactor exploded. It resulted in tens of direct deaths, a large number of further casualties and of transforming the vicinity into an uninhabitable area.
All nearby residents were required to flee their homes. They were given little explanation. When it was all over they were forbidden to return. The ground was now effectively poisoned. When can Chernobyl once again be inhabited? Not for another 20.000 years. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, the site draws thousands of visitors every year.
An offbeat tourist destination
Since restrictions for visiting the location have loosened, the number of visitors to Chernobyl has grown each year. It is estimated that in 2017 alone, 60.000 tourists have entered the area. While the number of tourists choosing beautiful Ukraine as a travel destination is growing, Chernobyl is proving to be one of the country’s most popular sights. Yes, it’s an anomaly. If our talks with locals are any indicator, many are rubbed the wrong way about the growing popularity of the area.
When we found out that we could visit the plant and its surrounding space we had just one question asking ourselves. Is it safe to go to Chernobyl? Yes. It is safe to visit. It is not safe to halt for a longer period of time.
Agencies that offer a tour of the 30 km area promise that a short trip should not be harmful. A quick research also reveals that the human body would normally be affected if left under the influence of the radiation for a long period of time.
Safety precautions are put in place by authorities and tour organizers. Admittedly, I was hesitant about the reliability of these. However, by most accounts, being scanned before and after leaving the exclusion zone, wearing appropriate clothing (long sleeves and trousers) and using a Geiger counter should keep you safe.
If that does not convince you, there are few wives’ tales of how to increase immunity to radiation. The prevailing myth is that alcohol and salt consumption will reduce the effect of radiation. In fact, a local told me about their grandfather, a driver at Chernobyl. He was spared a horrible death by being administered a healthy dose of … red wine. I acted accordingly. After a considerable portion of Ukrainian beer and potato chips, I felt more at ease about my chances of survival.
Booking the Chernobyl tour. Cost and what to expect
Most of the tourists visiting Chernobyl will begin their tour from the lovely capital of Ukraine, Kiev. The majority of travel agencies offer tours to Kiev’s gorgeous, historical areas, to the Mariyinsky Palace, former home to a now-ousted Ukrainian president, and to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl.
Most tours last for one day. However, tourists can choose a private tour package. These can take as long as a week. Tourists need to be accompanied by a local guide. Remember that just about everything in the area is still contaminated. Using our trusty Geiger counter we realized some areas are much more contaminated than others. To put this in perspective, getting a spine x-ray will expose you to about 1.50 millisievert (mSv). Some of the highest radiation levels in the exclusion area range from 12 – 40 (mSv). It is estimated that it would take a dosage of 1.000 mSv to put anyone into serious harm.
One day tours usually cost around 75 € – 120 €. The tour includes a tour of the exclusion zone, with the stop to the actual Number 4 nuclear plant reactor, the climax if this dark excursion. The rest of the sights that will be presented will depend upon the guide/agency.
You will likely see the city of Chernobyl, only a few km away from the power plant. Once a thriving city, its inhabitants were quickly evacuated and the awful day of 27 April 1986, 30 hours after the accident. The city has virtually remained a ghost town. But tourists will be shocked to find out that an administration of the area does live here. We stopped at a restaurant, I assumed that the single one in the city. We were offered a meal, with the food having been transported from Kiev. Receiving soup and tea in a restaurant in Chernobyl certainly felt surreal.
The city houses offices for the State Agency of Ukraine on the Exclusion Zone Management. In fact, Ukraine has been doing its best to administer the situation since 1986. While there was a high degree of danger for the entire world population at the time, it is still a cause of great stress for the country’s administration.
The city’s memorial reminds visitors of just how serious the situation actually was. One statue depicting the firefighters that came to help dedicates the effigy to “to those who saved the world”. Another memorial depicts an angel who is blowing his horn. Immediately following the accident, many inhabitants believed that an apocalypse, as depicted in the Bible, had begun. The truth was perhaps just as terrible.
The town of Pripyat is perhaps the most dread-inducing part of the tour. (It’s only included by certain agencies at the time of writing due to security concerns). The relatively new town was enjoying a period of rapid growth. The disaster left inhabitants having to rush to safety. Shockingly, the buildings and streets remain as they were in 1986. They remain caressed by time alone, without interference from mankind.
Chernobyl-2 is home to a military base which houses the Duga anti-ballistic missile network. The nuclear disaster happened at a time when the Cold War was still raging. Visitors will find themselves standing underneath a giant steel radar, one that was never fully functional and which exists now as a reminder of a bygone era.
On their return from the exclusion zone, tourists will pass through the Red Forest. The 10-square-kilometre area is possibly the most dangerous place in the entire zone. It received the highest dose of radiation. We were told that wandering through the forest would more than likely have fatal consequences.
The Red Forest near Chernobyl is still a source of great angst to Ukrainians. In 2015 and 2018 fires broke out in the forest. The existing conditions made putting out the fires a difficult task. The result of these could have been radiation filled smoke being flown to inhabited areas such as the nearby capital of Kiev.
Myths and reality about Chernobyl
Is Chernobyl home to mutant beasts?
Myth. Animals in the area generally display no abnormalities. On the other hand, the exclusion zone has developed into somewhat of an ecological paradise. Since few people ever ventured to live inside the zone, nature was able to evolve freely. At a mere few km from the busy city of Kiev, Chernobyl is a wildlife refuge.
Do people still live in Chernobyl?
Yes and no. Offices do exist in Chernobyl as previously mentioned and tour guides travel to the area every few days. However, it should be noted that shortly after the accident, some Chernobyl inhabitants chose to return. We were told there are examples of people who come back to their homes following the accident. It’s unclear what effect this had on their long-term health.
Do some travel to the exclusion zone illegally?
Yes. The exclusion zone and the Stalker game series have launched an entire subculture. The game (inspired by the book A roadside picnic and by Andrei Tarkovsky‘s movie Stalker) takes place in the exclusion zone. Real life stalkers have emerged, giving themselves missions such as collecting artefacts or travelling dangerous areas across the area. This is, of course, highly dangerous and illegal. The stalker subculture is without a doubt one of the strangest cultural divisions we’ve come across.
What does it all say about the human condition?
The events at Chernobyl made a local disaster impact the entire world. Simply put, under different circumstances, life on Earth could have ceased to exist. It made the world think differently of technology and of our potential to control it.
Chernobyl is part of a growing market for dark tourism. The murky past of the region and perceived danger are the main reasons for the high level of interest. But the tourists themselves have different motivations for travelling here.
For some, it’s a place of pilgrimage. It’s a chance to honour those who have suffered a terrible tragedy. It’s also an opportunity to remember the calamitous potential of our man-made experiments.
For others, it’s a voyeuristic look into the past. The area has been frozen in time, a shadowy figure condemned to a sombre future.
Still, for others, it is simply exotic. A travel destination that few can boast having travelled to. A conversation starter that will likely be accompanied by disbelief. It’s a chance to face a frightening world that one can escape in a few hours, after taking numerous photographic proof of the visit. Social media networks abound with such pictures.
Yes, Chernobyl is fascinating for all these reasons. We returned from the trip questioning our initial decision to go, impressed by the connotation of our travel and having paid a visit to a place sentenced to remain stuck in the night of 25–26 April 1986 for eternity.
Want to see more? Check out What’s like to visit Chernobyl, the biggest nuclear accident caused by mankind – Photo journal