Chernobyl: a disaster turned into a dark tourist attraction
How the Ukrainians tapped into a growing fascination for travel destinations hit by tragedy
The dark tourist in me is drawn to odd, exotic locations, for a quick weekend trip or sometimes even longer. It’s probably part of being a journalist.
The latest drew me to Ukraine and the site of one of the
world's most infamous nuclear disasters.
I was too young to understand the explosions at the Chernobyl nuclear facility, and five years after that, I only vaguely remember my parents explaining the USSR's disbandment.
However, I do remember spending time studying the Cold War and McCarthyism (coined after the US senator that accused various Americans for being communists, known as the “Red Scare”). And of course, throughout my travels, I’ve come to know many people who experienced all of the above first-hand.
So with each of my off-beaten trips, I attempt to learn something about a country, city or its people that expands what I've learned but isn’t common knowledge.
While on my Chernobyl tour, I climbed to an abandoned building’s rooftop and spotted a tower in the distance peeking through the overgrown landscape. Later our guide, Elena Lupekha, took my group closer and explained that this was initially built during the Cold War which spanned from 1947 to 1991. However, the outside world didn’t know of its existence until 1987 when a famous American TV talk show host came to town.
"The Donahue Show", hosted by Phil Donahue, took time away from more enjoyable TV programming in my youth - or so I thought. But prior to his interrupting daily talk show, Mr Donahue was a reporter on a mission.
He, along with Soviet journalist Vladimir Pozner, co-hosted “Space Bridges”, a show that was meant to get both sides talking. It attempted to break down the walls of suspicion to ease nuclear tensions.
My tour guide, Elena, explained that while Mr Donahue was touring Pripyat, the nearest town outside of the nuclear facility, he saw the same tower that was currently providing me shade. The American asked his Soviet handlers what they were to which one reply was that the government was constructing a hotel. The next person he asked said that the structure was a telecomm tower. He kept receiving varying answers which piqued his interest.
This was reportedly how the US government learned of their existence – as did all Western allies.
The steel mass was a detector, supposedly fit to warn Moscow if the US released any nuclear missiles giving the Soviet Union enough time to deploy their arsenal.
Elena responded that it appeared that while the tower was meant to detect any nuclear retaliation from the US, that the device never worked.
After hearing this story, I immediately began my research.
I was surprised that Mr Donahue was the first person to draw international attention to the structures, though unintentionally. However, my research turned up empty and gave me the impression that there still remains confusion around the tower’s purpose.
And who doesn’t love a mystery?
Turning the disaster into a tourist attraction can be evidenced by various pop-up stands selling souvenirs and the like throughout Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.
Tourists take a two-hour ride from Kiev to the disaster area, often broken up with a pitstop at a petrol station one hour from the checkpoint. Tour leaders run inside to rent a DVD detailing the explosion and its aftermath, but Chernobyl guide Elena Lupekha said acquiring the documentary isn’t always guaranteed as there is limited stock mixed with a rise in thrill seekers.
The story of Chernobyl is not pleasant. The DVD begins profiling the unskilled labour manning the plant, in addition to the design flaws, when the meltdown occurred on Saturday, April 26, 1986. The radiation released into the atmosphere was hidden by the Soviet authorities who believed there was no reason to postpone the International Workers’ Day celebrations scheduled for May 1.
As the wind spread the harmful pollutants, Sweden was the first to detect the high amounts of radiation in the atmosphere - two days after the explosion. Moscow began evacuating residents in the zone on April 29, with buses loading all the residents in a 10 kilometre radius within three hours, according to the DVD.
Evacuees were forced to leave behind all of their possessions, which resulted in Pripyat, the town outside the Chernobyl facility, becoming known as a ghost-town.
One tour operator, Chernobyl Travel, said that over the past decade, 40,000 tourists have visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This increased substantially after the 2007 release of the popular computer game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. The company said this also led to illegal entrants with authorities detaining around 400 people annually for a fine of around €16 each.
The Ukrainian government requires visitors inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone to frequently pass through machines to check radiation levels. LeAnne Graves / The National
More than three decades after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, tourists crowd outside the Dityaki checkpoint to enter the restricted 30 kilometre zone.
Ukraine allows 56 nationalities to enter without a visa, though some nationalities such as Indian may obtain a visa upon arrival. GCC countries are required to have a visa although the UAE and Ukraine are currently in bilateral discussions to increase ties - which includes the potential to have visa-free entry.
Pulling up to the checkpoint, there’s an old Soviet tank marking the spot where buses unload visitors met with a vendor selling Chernobyl souvenirs such as t-shirts marked with “radioactive” phrases. The Geiger counter market is also booming as tourists pay around US$8 to rent the machine for the day in order to measure radiation levels.
Groups inch their way up to the front to see the one security official tasked with cross-checking individual passports with information provided to authorities at least 10 days in advance and even longer for non-Ukrainians.
Chernobyl tour guides must be accredited by the Ministry of Tourism, and are required to wear a pendant that continuously measures their radiation intake. Should a high level be reached, companies must provide a month paid vacation to the guide, according to Ms Lupekha.
After the security check, the tour leader is given a specific time to depart the zone. Small doses of radiation are not harmful, which is why the amount of time within the zone is so closely monitored. However, Ms Lupekha said after giving continuous tours to the zone for the past year, she has yet to reach the forced vacation level.
Once back on the bus, tourists prepare for the trip to the infamous deserted town.
While the uninhabited city of Pripyat, just 3.2 km from the Chernobyl plant, is hardly seen through the overgrown vegetation, guides take tourists through the rubble climbing multi-storey, Communist-style buildings. Each room tells the same story: a life left behind.
However, there are other notable items that seem to be the perfect picture opportunity for a tourist. Maybe a bit too perfect.
One room had a handwritten journal with the last date as 1985, while another had old medicine bottles perfectly aligned in a cabinet. Further on the tour, an elementary school had hundreds of gas masks on the floor, all seemingly staged for visitors.
Tourists are thrilled trying to find the next wave of high radiation levels as measured by the Geiger counter. In one particular area outside the school, the counter spiked to over 4 radiation absorbed dose (rad) - nearly 14 times the dangerous intake levels of 0.3 rad (Ukraine’s average is around .12 rad).
A supersized catfish outside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. LeAnne Graves / The National
It was the same hovering the device over a water hole at the nearby theme park, which is reminiscent of a horror film with a ferris wheel that has carts hanging by threads of rusted steel. Guides warn travellers from getting too close for two reasons: potential radiation particles and the danger-prone breakage.
That is the same reason that it is advised not to eat or drink anything inside the zone, except at the onsite dining hall. The school-type lunchroom set up features basic salads and other Ukrainian eats brought from outside the zone. Prior to entering and upon leaving, guests are required pass through a machine that measures each person’s radiation levels.
On July 8, most of the cafeteria was abuzz with Polish speakers. Guide Constantine Homovnenko said most of the tourists roaming the site are Polish and British, sprinkled with a few Germans.
Mr Homovnenko, nearly 30 years old, has been a guide for Kiev and Chernobyl tours for more than six years, taking after his mother. “The amount of people visiting Chernobyl from Western countries has definitely increased, but obviously the amount of tourists from Russia and Belarus has decreased many times,” he said.
He went to a special school in the country designated for tours, while also learning English to reach a wider audience unlike his mother who focuses solely on Ukrainian and Russian speakers. He said that Russians previously made up half of all the visitors to the Ukraine, but that number has dropped to less than 10 per cent, by his own estimates.
Mr Homovnenko works nearly 10 months out of the year, catering to the rise in English speakers. During the season, excluding winter, he has between 20 and 25 tours a month.
“For me, business is fine. But my mother doesn’t speak enough English, so she barely works as a guide at all now,” Mr Homovnenko said.
Cold War starts between the US and the Soviet Union
First two of four reactors built for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Reactors 3 and 4 were completed
Fourth reactor explodes
Sweden detected the radiation leaks followed by Finland
Russia admits the reactor explosion
November 9, 1989
Berlin Wall falls
Soviet Union collapses, creating 15 new nations, and ending the Cold War
August 24, Ukraine officially declared itself as an independent state
Orange Revolution - protests over presidential election fraud
Ukrainian revolution - resulted in the president being impeached
Moscow-backed forces took control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula
The territory voted in a referendum not internationally recognised to join Russia
Valentina Borysivna believes that she has the same health issues as anyone her age. The Ukrainian, 78, spends her days doing house chores and gardening while entertaining guests including family and friends and even tourists.
It sounds normal, but the difference is that Ms Borysivna has lived in the town of Chernobyl her entire life.
“I think that it isn’t necessary for me to go somewhere else as people from all over the world come to visit me,” she said.
She was 47 when the nuclear power plant explosion occurred. Her husband, who passed away a couple of years ago, was working on a crane nearby and saw part of the reactor explode. He didn’t pay much attention and later that night, the pair went for a walk around town.
Valentina and her husband ran into a neighbor who was shocked to see them out and about. “The friend asked if we knew about the power plant explosion and said it was likely very serious and might require evacuation,” she said. “That’s how I learned about the accident.”
The couple remained in their homes until being evacuated on May 5, nine days after the meltdown. She was separated from her husband, children and grandchildren - each sent to different cities around the country.
Tour guide, Elena Lupekha, said this is a story told among all Chernobyl refugees.
“Members of one family, the wife, husband and children, were completely divided and sent to different cities and towns,” she said. “Even small children were sent to special ‘summer camps’ to be treated, taking parents months to find their kids.”
Meanwhile, workers known as liquidators sprung into action to contain the nuclear fallout. Around 4,000 people would eventually die from radiation exposure, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Around 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers were exposed to the initial bursts of radiation on the first day. The WHO also said out of 200,000 emergency workers exposed over the course of the next year, a little more than 2,000 deaths would be linked to radiation.
Valentina returned to the disaster zone almost immediately after the forced evacuation. She and her husband would sneak in for almost a year before the Soviet government granted them an official permit to live in the exclusion zone.
She picked up work at a factory which delivered all the items left behind inside the zone to Kiev. Valentina said she decided to come back for two reasons.
“My family had been divided and we wanted to stay together, even in this abandoned area without even life’s basics. I was grateful for the opportunity to come back and stay.”
The Babushka (Russian for grandmother) is one of about 176 self-settlers who returned to live in the exclusion zone along with 12,000 rotational employees, according to the State Agency of Ukraine. Valentina said that a few of her friends had moved back, though many are now deceased.
However, those deaths are not connected to the Chernobyl incident.
A great deal of research has been done, including the findings from more than 100 international scientists in a UN report.
An estimated 5 million people currently live in the main areas that were hit by the harmful pollution in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. One-fifth of that total live in areas classified by government authorities as areas of “strict control”. The scientists said that about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, resulted from the contamination.
Nine children died as a result, but the survival rate among such cancer victims has been 99 per cent, based on experience in Belarus.
Radiation experts, Dr Jerry Cutter and Dr Myron Pollycove, wrote a paper dismissing the fear mongering around nuclear radiation saying that more than a century with radiation and six decades with nuclear reactors disproved the theory that a nuclear accident could kill hundreds of thousands. The pair said: “Negative images and implications of health risks derived by unscientific extrapolations of harmful effects of high doses must be dispelled.”
Valentina is a living testament to this, and has lived to see her grandchildren grow up to have their own children. She isn’t angry about what happened. “It’s now all gone, I can’t blame anyone and in my opinion, the government took good care of people,” she said.
What does she want people to know?
“I’m very open-minded and I’m so happy to meet people from different countries, because to me, it’s important that we all communicate with each other,” she said. “And I wish that more will visit Chernobyl.”
With that, she pulled out her accordion and played for a group of tourists with her dog, Donna, barking along to the music.
UAE-based adventure travel group, Trekkup Dubai, doesn’t just provide a trip to the nuclear disaster zone, but a Soviet-geared experience from shooting Kalashnikov assault rifles to driving an armoured vehicle.
It starts with a network of veterans from the Soviet-Afghan war who travel all over the world collecting combat relics.
One veteran ran a type of museum from his home, carrying various antiques from military-grade uniforms to traditional Taliban clothing, handwritten letters from Adolf Hitler and a photo collection of Joseph Stalin. The Russian-speaking owner begins telling stories of each find, taking two hours to cover the extensive collection.
Out back is a line-up of tanks, with tourists running to climb atop for the perfect selfie.
Our group then headed to a shooting range to test Kalashnikov and Dragunov sniper rifles as well as M-16s - activities that typically seem out of reach for the average civilian.
It got better when two armoured vehicles were introduced, giving us each a turn at driving.
The Boyevaya Razvedyvatelnaya Dozornaya Mashina (BRDM) is a combat reconnaissance patrol vehicle used by the former Soviet states. Making sharp turns thinking the amphibious armoured car will tip at any moment gives riders a sense of power and fear, but also excitement knowing that it is unlikely that many can one-up this vacation experience.
The excursion also provides another vantage point than just the ones told by parents and grandparents from the Cold War era (as in my case). The impression that Ukraine will be cold in both weather and personalities was untrue. Language may be a slight barrier, but not impossible.
The capital of Kiev appears to be completely under-rated.
Walking the streets and music is everywhere with kiosks selling coffee and ice cream (mostly) as well as the odd dance party.
The cafes on the weekends are full of an eclectic mix of nationalities and when splitting the cheque among friends, it’s so inexpensive you decide to simply take turns at each venue.
The city was built on top of one large bomb shelter, thanks to the nuclear tensions between Russia and the US. This is evident when visiting the Arsenalna metro station, the world’s deepest metro station, with multiple escalator rides that lasts several minutes.
The station is 105.5 metres below the surface, and looking down can give the feeling of vertigo (I had to close my eyes).
The site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster is full of abandoned buildings that are overgrown with lush vegetation, but it has something more that no one expects: tourists.
Piotr Bural, founder of Dubai-based Trekkup, said that the idea to travel to the site had a personal meaning for him.
Growing up in Poland during the Soviet Union, Mr Bural was 13 years old when the fourth reactor at the nuclear power plant exploded.
Potassium iodide, which contains a stable form of iodine, has been used to help protect against harmful radiation exposure which can lead to thyroid cancer. The Japanese government began distributing iodine tablets around the Fukushima area in 2011; however, Poland didn’t have tablets during that time and instead people drank a liquid mixture.
Mr Bural said that Poland actually followed information released from Sweden, which is why the country immediately took action to give the solution. But ultimately, residents weren’t sure if the information they were given was correct.
“Living in Soviet Poland, we never knew the truth. I was interested to see, to touch this place and learn more about the reality,” he said.
The Dubai-based group began taking travellers from the UAE to Ukraine in May, with a day trip to Chernobyl. The company has since completed three tours to the site, totalling 36 people. And there are more planned for next year as the demand continues.
Tourism in Ukraine is rising again after dropping drastically in 2014 as political tensions mounted with Russia.
Total visitors to Ukraine totalled 13 million people, with 19 per cent of that total as organised tourism, according to the
Ukrainian State Statistics Service. The number has started showing signs of growth, to the tune of 8 per cent from the previous two years, after a sharp drop in 2014.
The problems started when Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power as protesters took over Kiev in February 2014. Two months later, Russia seized control over the Crimean peninsula after a referendum was passed, although the international community considers this illegal.
While the region had been granted autonomous power in 1996, the Ukrainian constitution mandated that Crimean legislation must be in line with Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of the peninsula has negatively impacted tourism to Ukraine, including the control over four airports.
Three airports are no longer in operation from the war in Donbas between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military. This includes the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, which carried more than 1 million passengers in 2013 while 41 per cent of its flights were for domestic travel.
This has impacted other airports in the country, particularly the capital’s Boryspil and Zhuliany airports. Both airports are destination for UAE airlines with Sharjah’s Air Arabia operating a daily flight to Boryspil and flyDubai heading to Zhuilany twice each day.
More than 9 million passengers fly into Kiev airports each year, but Zhuliany said that it had to make adjustments given the political events over 2013-2014. The airport said that passenger flow and flights dropped sharply which led to the closure of one of its terminals. However, the airport said that Kiev was showing signs of growth.
The Ukrainian State Statistics Service shows organised tourism plummeted to 147,000 in 2014 from more than 900,000 prior to the turmoil in 2012. Last year’s figures increased 18 per cent from 2014 levels, indicating growth, but the main pool of tourism from Russia is steadily declining.
The state recorded 45,000 visited for tourism last year out of the total 1.5 million travellers from Russia, an 86 per cent drop from highs in 2012. In addition, Belarusians - which make up the second highest population of international travellers, have also declined drastically after minor disagreements between Kiev and Minsk over over documentation for visa-free entry.
Piotr Bural, Trekkup Dubai founder, began taking groups to Ukraine this year for long weekend excursions. The first couple of trips were only for the weekend, costing around Dh3,100.
“Everyone liked it, so I thought there should be more to come,” he said. “The price of the trip has increased to Dh3,400, but we’ve also extended the duration to around four days.
“We have done three trips, but we make it more interesting with other activities such as tank riding,” he said. “We’ll do at least two more trips next year starting in May.”
Moving away from the standard beach hut holiday or ski resort weekend, disaster tourism is piquing the interests of travellers from all corners of the world.
Some places may not seem to fit this genre, such the volcano-buried Pompeii in Italy. Other sites such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki definitely fit the category, where interested travellers can go online to find locals for hire as guides.
While such tourism exists, it may be just an opportunity for those already visiting an area nearby.
More recently, people have flocked to see the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the third deadliest hurricane in US history and the costliest ever at US$108 billion in damage.
The catastrophe cut through the heart of New Orleans tourism in 2005, forcing Tours by Isabelle to offer post-Katrina tours to stay alive. Owner Isabelle Cossart lost so much business that she had to slash her workforce and sell two vans. She turned to trips that showed the devastation, charging $49 per person (the same price as her former New Orleans City tours), which helped kick-start the company's recovery.
The next year she raised her prices to $53, followed by $58. By 2008, Ms Cossart had taken more than 17,000 tourists on Katrina tours, was able to purchase two new vans and hire back most of her former employees.
“I think people once in awhile still ask for these post-Katrina tours just because it’s still just human nature to be curious,” she said.
The “New Orleans City and Katrina Tour” now cost $85 and has taken a different turn. Devastation is no longer the main theme, but rather the rebirth of a city underway including Harry Connick Jr and Ellis Marsalis' restoration project: Habitat For Humanity's colourful Musicians' Village site. The site is seen as an island of hope and colour in the middle of the Upper Ninth Ward, an area still full of desolation and sadness.
Words: LeAnne Graves
Graphics: Alvaro Sanmarti
Photography: LeAnne Graves
Videos: LeAnne Graves
Video Editing: Andrew Scott and Emmanuel Samaglou
Editors: Mustafa Alrawi, Stephen Nelmes
Photo Editor: Jake Badger
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017