I’d first heard the word Chernobyl as a kid when various areas of the north of England, where I grew up, were likened to the nuclear disaster zone in a form of dark humour. Since the disaster in 1986, a 30km ring around Chernobyl was set up and general members of the public were excluded from it until just under 10 years ago when the gates of the nuclear wasteland were tentatively opened to the public. Chernobyl was a place I never thought I’d set foot in, let alone lead expeditions inside for groups of up to 30 people.
A few years ago I began working for the Soviet Wastelands office of the company Young Pioneer Tours, managing and expanding their operations in the former Soviet Union. Before I came along, YPT had already established themselves as some of the earliest tour operators inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Back in the days of corruption under the Yanukovich era, the company was forced to constantly adapt in order to carry out their work. Thus tourists were marked down as scientists and the tours were deemed as ‘research trips’. Today, entry into the zone is through a QR code and feels almost like a theme park due to the growth of what has been termed ‘Radioactive Tourism’ which involves holidays to nuclear disaster sites and radioactive hotspots around the world.
Through the popularity of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, tourism into the Chernobyl zone has boomed. It was already rapidly growing due to the growing number of photos posted on social media sites such as Instagram, but the miniseries has attracted a whole new type of tourist. Whilst the exclusion zone marks a place of death and misery for many people, others see it simply as an inappropriate photo opportunity for social media and are unaware of the invisible dangers that lurk in various areas of the zone. The state of Ukraine refuses to call those who visit the zone ‘’tourists’’ but calls them “visitors” instead.
Just a few years ago, my memories of Chernobyl consisted of standing on top of an apartment block overlooking an empty ghost city that summarised the pride of the Soviet Union. The only sound was the wind blowing through a gigantic rotting coat of arms of the USSR. Today, this can be achieved by visiting the zone earlier with a certain permit, but on busy weekends, the ghost town of Pripyat often no longer feels like a ghost town as various languages and the laughter of international visitors echo around its eerie tower blocks.
The excess of visitors being allowed into the zone is simply down to greed and the desire to take admission fees from as many tourists as possible, damaging the atmosphere of Chernobyl in the process. As a result, the hardcore radioactive tourists whom we see a lot of have sought sanctuary elsewhere in other radioactive destinations around the world.
On the day of the Chernobyl disaster, the wind was blowing north which meant neighbouring Belarus was hit hardest by the initial fallout. Belarus formed its own exclusion zone which was isolated from the public for many years after the Ukrainian sector opened. Last year, when Belarus finally opened its gates to the zone, combined with the dissolution of its infamously difficult visa process, we were some of the first inside to launch a research trip in the hope of providing a ‘new Chernobyl experience’ for our clients.
Interestingly, the Belarus exclusion zone is devoid of foreign visitors and home to just a few scientists and villagers. Thus the wildlife in the zone is a lot more brazen and easy to spot in comparison to Ukraine, meaning our old Soviet van transport was followed by a pack of curious wolves for a good 20 or so minutes. Rather than ghost cities like Pripyat, the Belarus exclusion zone consists of a series of villages, boatyards, industrial complexes, and palaces of culture all trapped in time from the Soviet Union.
Another one of our radioactive Soviet tours in high demand has been that of the Semipalatinsk Test Site deep in the deserts of Kazakhstan. This area was used as a testing site for almost 500 nuclear bombs during the Cold War. It closed when the USSR collapsed in 1991 and soon became the best-researched atomic testing site in the world as it is the only one in existence that is open to the public. Its legacy has left an alien-like landscape dotted with ruined buildings and concrete testing posts 650 ft apart. The human impact is manifested in devastating deformities and disabilities on the local population as a result of the nuclear fallout.
Whilst I hope that there are no new modern additions to our range of nuclear disaster sites, there is a positive aspect in tourism to these tragic destinations.
In Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest countries, Chernobyl is often classed as its primary tourist draw for foreign tourists to the country. Despite questions of sustainability, and in the case of some selfie-obsessed tourists, human decency, the remains of a tragedy have at least been turned into a much-needed economic injection.
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