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A record number of people are visiting Chernobyl and Ukraine’s government is planning to welcome even more

There are parts of Chernobyl so dangerous you could die in minutes just standing there but that’s not stopping tourists who are visiting the exclusion zone in record numbers




Chernobyl could become a World Heritage site by 2023   Credit: Michal Lis on Unsplash

April 26, 2021 will mark the 35th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in history, the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The incident occurred in the early hours of that day in 1986, when a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant in the then Soviet Ukraine exploded, sending clouds of nuclear material across swathes of Europe.

Today, Chernobyl is infamously known as that of the most significant man-made disaster site in human history. With that infamy, comes interest, which has been exponentially rising every year since 2002, when tourists were legally allowed to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for the first time since the accident. That rise in interest has been reflected by record visitor numbers to the site.

Dark tourism boom

For the dark tourist - defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy, Chernobyl is right at the top of the list when it comes to exploring the tragic side of our history.

It’s been 19 years since Ukraine’s government first began allowing small tours of the 1,000-square-mile (2,600sq km) exclusion zone with visitor numbers low at first.

In 2004, 840 total visitors explored the area. In 2017, that number had reached 50,000 people - 70% of them being overseas visitors. By 2019, that number had skyrocketed, with nearly 200,000 tourists visiting the site and around 100,000 of them coming from outside of Ukraine to see the site.



The HBO effect

Combined with increased safety precautions, visitor numbers were thought to have increased by about 35% year-on-year as a direct result of the HBO and Sky series Chernobyl, which revolved around the 1986 disaster and the following cleanup efforts.

The series premiered to critical acclaim, winning three Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes for its adaptation of the real-life story, piquing many people’s interest in the Chernobyl disaster.

With the increased interest in Chernobyl, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, officially designated the exclusion zone as a tourist site in 2019.

"Unfortunately, the exclusion zone is still a symbol of corruption - law enforcement officials collect bribes from tourists, smuggle out illegal scrap metal and use natural resources,” said the president. “We will stop all of this soon."

While Ukraine is keen to ensure visitors remain respectful of the tragedy that occurred there, plans include creating a “green corridor” to allow more safe entry points into the exclusion zone. The government also hopes the site will one day represent Ukraine's resilience and determination to overcome in the face of great tragedy.

Ongoing concerns

During the dry seasons, forest fires are a big issue for Chernobyl, more so than anywhere else in the world.

Because the area has been almost completely untouched by man for 35 years, dry conditions and a build-up of debris make the exclusion zone’s forests a ripe breeding ground for wildfires. Add in contaminated radioactive material moving through the air through smoke and you’ve got the potential for disaster.

In April last year, a forest fire destroyed around 30% of the exclusion zone, including several abandoned villages. During the fire, an increase of radiation - resulting from the release of caesium-137 and strontium-90 from the ground and biomass - was detected but thankfully was not at high enough levels to pose any threat to human health.


An abandoned Ferris wheel has become a must-see inside the exclusion zone - Credit: Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash

So how safe is a Chernobyl visit?

Quite surprisingly, a visit to the exclusion zone is very safe, assuming visitors stick to the rules.

According to experts, the radiation dose you get over the course of a day inside the exclusion zone falls within the limits of natural levels. For comparison, a full day inside the zone would give the average person a dose 300 times smaller than a hospital X-ray. Indeed, you would likely receive more radiation from the flight to Ukraine than you would the visit to Chernobyl.

Of course, there are hotspots where visitors should not go, but inside the exclusion zone, guides will only take visitors to safe areas. In areas where radiation is higher, such as close to the reactor, guests are only allowed to spend a certain amount of time there to avoid any adverse effects. Additionally, all visitors are legally required to be at least 18 years of age.


50,000 people used to live in Pripyat, now it’s a ghost town - Credit: Mick De Paola on Unsplash

The visitor experience

Today, visitors can book a guided tour of the Chernobyl site, with guides following strict safety protocols and having an in-depth knowledge of the event and the area’s history.

Several tour operators offer hotels in locations close to Chernobyl, with stays lasting anywhere from one to seven days and prices starting as low as €25 for a visit.

A general itinerary usually includes a visit to the damaged reactor and a tour of the exclusion zone’s abandoned villages. High on the list for the Chernobyl visitor is a trip to the abandoned city of Pripyat.

Located only a few miles from the nuclear power station, more than 50,000 people lived in what is now a ghost town, with the entire population evacuated in less than three hours and the residents never able to return home.

In the city, visitors can see abandoned residential buildings and a small theme park, whose Ferris Wheel has become something of a dark icon for the abandoned metropolis.

The area also offers a unique look at nature. For residents living inside the exclusion zone, when the order came to evacuate, there was no time to even take personal possessions. As a result, the animals, trees and vegetation have retaken the area in a stunning, yet haunting way, with many visitors coming specifically to see how nature persists without human intervention.

Improving safety and recognising historical importance

While unsafe levels of radiation remain in many areas of the exclusion zone, the safety of the area was significantly improved in 2016 with the completion of a giant protective dome, to house the damaged fourth reactor.

The dome is designed to make the reactor safe for the next century, though while safe for a short visit, the exclusion zone will not be habitable again by humans for an estimated 24,000 years.

With the government’s primary task of building and installing the dome now complete, its leaders have turned their eyes toward securing the legacy of the site and boosting visitor numbers.

While nearly 200,000 visited Chernobyl in 2019, Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, hopes that Unesco World Heritage Status could boost visitor numbers to more than one million people a year.

In December, Tkachenko outlined the government’s intentions to seek World Heritage status for sections of the exclusion zone, which it believes would help to protect infrastructure around the site while also further bolstering tourism in northern Ukraine.

The substantial rise in annual visitor numbers - around 100,000 of which are foreign tourists - serve as proof that Chernobyl is a historic site of deep significance “not only to Ukrainians but of all mankind,” said the minister, who added that he wanted to cement the exclusion zone as a “place of memory”.

Ukrainian officials are currently working on elements within the exclusion zone for submissions to Unesco for World Heritage status, with a plan to make its submission by March 2021. A final decision from Unesco will likely arrive by 2023 at the latest.

“The area may and should be open to visitors, but it should be more than just an adventure destination for explorers,” Tkachenko told AFP.

“Before everyone was busy with the cover. The time has come to do this.”


Residents of Chernobyl were never able to return to their homes - Credit: Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash


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A record number of people are visiting Chernobyl and Ukraine’s government is planning to welcome even more | Planet Attractions

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A record number of people are visiting Chernobyl and Ukraine’s government is planning to welcome even more

There are parts of Chernobyl so dangerous you could die in minutes just standing there but that’s not stopping tourists who are visiting the exclusion zone in record numbers




Chernobyl could become a World Heritage site by 2023   Credit: Michal Lis on Unsplash

April 26, 2021 will mark the 35th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in history, the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The incident occurred in the early hours of that day in 1986, when a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant in the then Soviet Ukraine exploded, sending clouds of nuclear material across swathes of Europe.

Today, Chernobyl is infamously known as that of the most significant man-made disaster site in human history. With that infamy, comes interest, which has been exponentially rising every year since 2002, when tourists were legally allowed to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for the first time since the accident. That rise in interest has been reflected by record visitor numbers to the site.

Dark tourism boom

For the dark tourist - defined as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy, Chernobyl is right at the top of the list when it comes to exploring the tragic side of our history.

It’s been 19 years since Ukraine’s government first began allowing small tours of the 1,000-square-mile (2,600sq km) exclusion zone with visitor numbers low at first.

In 2004, 840 total visitors explored the area. In 2017, that number had reached 50,000 people - 70% of them being overseas visitors. By 2019, that number had skyrocketed, with nearly 200,000 tourists visiting the site and around 100,000 of them coming from outside of Ukraine to see the site.



The HBO effect

Combined with increased safety precautions, visitor numbers were thought to have increased by about 35% year-on-year as a direct result of the HBO and Sky series Chernobyl, which revolved around the 1986 disaster and the following cleanup efforts.

The series premiered to critical acclaim, winning three Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes for its adaptation of the real-life story, piquing many people’s interest in the Chernobyl disaster.

With the increased interest in Chernobyl, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, officially designated the exclusion zone as a tourist site in 2019.

"Unfortunately, the exclusion zone is still a symbol of corruption - law enforcement officials collect bribes from tourists, smuggle out illegal scrap metal and use natural resources,” said the president. “We will stop all of this soon."

While Ukraine is keen to ensure visitors remain respectful of the tragedy that occurred there, plans include creating a “green corridor” to allow more safe entry points into the exclusion zone. The government also hopes the site will one day represent Ukraine's resilience and determination to overcome in the face of great tragedy.

Ongoing concerns

During the dry seasons, forest fires are a big issue for Chernobyl, more so than anywhere else in the world.

Because the area has been almost completely untouched by man for 35 years, dry conditions and a build-up of debris make the exclusion zone’s forests a ripe breeding ground for wildfires. Add in contaminated radioactive material moving through the air through smoke and you’ve got the potential for disaster.

In April last year, a forest fire destroyed around 30% of the exclusion zone, including several abandoned villages. During the fire, an increase of radiation - resulting from the release of caesium-137 and strontium-90 from the ground and biomass - was detected but thankfully was not at high enough levels to pose any threat to human health.


An abandoned Ferris wheel has become a must-see inside the exclusion zone - Credit: Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash

So how safe is a Chernobyl visit?

Quite surprisingly, a visit to the exclusion zone is very safe, assuming visitors stick to the rules.

According to experts, the radiation dose you get over the course of a day inside the exclusion zone falls within the limits of natural levels. For comparison, a full day inside the zone would give the average person a dose 300 times smaller than a hospital X-ray. Indeed, you would likely receive more radiation from the flight to Ukraine than you would the visit to Chernobyl.

Of course, there are hotspots where visitors should not go, but inside the exclusion zone, guides will only take visitors to safe areas. In areas where radiation is higher, such as close to the reactor, guests are only allowed to spend a certain amount of time there to avoid any adverse effects. Additionally, all visitors are legally required to be at least 18 years of age.


50,000 people used to live in Pripyat, now it’s a ghost town - Credit: Mick De Paola on Unsplash

The visitor experience

Today, visitors can book a guided tour of the Chernobyl site, with guides following strict safety protocols and having an in-depth knowledge of the event and the area’s history.

Several tour operators offer hotels in locations close to Chernobyl, with stays lasting anywhere from one to seven days and prices starting as low as €25 for a visit.

A general itinerary usually includes a visit to the damaged reactor and a tour of the exclusion zone’s abandoned villages. High on the list for the Chernobyl visitor is a trip to the abandoned city of Pripyat.

Located only a few miles from the nuclear power station, more than 50,000 people lived in what is now a ghost town, with the entire population evacuated in less than three hours and the residents never able to return home.

In the city, visitors can see abandoned residential buildings and a small theme park, whose Ferris Wheel has become something of a dark icon for the abandoned metropolis.

The area also offers a unique look at nature. For residents living inside the exclusion zone, when the order came to evacuate, there was no time to even take personal possessions. As a result, the animals, trees and vegetation have retaken the area in a stunning, yet haunting way, with many visitors coming specifically to see how nature persists without human intervention.

Improving safety and recognising historical importance

While unsafe levels of radiation remain in many areas of the exclusion zone, the safety of the area was significantly improved in 2016 with the completion of a giant protective dome, to house the damaged fourth reactor.

The dome is designed to make the reactor safe for the next century, though while safe for a short visit, the exclusion zone will not be habitable again by humans for an estimated 24,000 years.

With the government’s primary task of building and installing the dome now complete, its leaders have turned their eyes toward securing the legacy of the site and boosting visitor numbers.

While nearly 200,000 visited Chernobyl in 2019, Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, hopes that Unesco World Heritage Status could boost visitor numbers to more than one million people a year.

In December, Tkachenko outlined the government’s intentions to seek World Heritage status for sections of the exclusion zone, which it believes would help to protect infrastructure around the site while also further bolstering tourism in northern Ukraine.

The substantial rise in annual visitor numbers - around 100,000 of which are foreign tourists - serve as proof that Chernobyl is a historic site of deep significance “not only to Ukrainians but of all mankind,” said the minister, who added that he wanted to cement the exclusion zone as a “place of memory”.

Ukrainian officials are currently working on elements within the exclusion zone for submissions to Unesco for World Heritage status, with a plan to make its submission by March 2021. A final decision from Unesco will likely arrive by 2023 at the latest.

“The area may and should be open to visitors, but it should be more than just an adventure destination for explorers,” Tkachenko told AFP.

“Before everyone was busy with the cover. The time has come to do this.”


Residents of Chernobyl were never able to return to their homes - Credit: Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash


 
© Planet Attractions 2020