Ukrainian tour operators are anticipating a healthy flow of tourists, but it is too early to tell if this notorious disaster site has the makings of tourist attraction. Many questions remain. Can visitors' safety be guaranteed? Will the massive investments needed in infrastructure materialize? While we wait for those answers, nature is gradually reclaiming this impressive site where time stood still.
Those who visit Chernobyl today say it's like travelling back in time. Within a few hours of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986, the government evacuated all 50,000 residents of the neighboring town of Pripyat. The abandoned streets, schools, and Soviet-era department stores have remained intact in the intervening 25 years. Tour operators expect that this ghost town frozen in time and the wreckage of the reactor encased in a concrete sarcophagus will make an indelible impression on tourists.
Tourism in Chernobyl is not an entirely novel ideal; several tour operators already offer excursions to the area. But now it has attracted the attention of the government, and that could make a huge difference.
Last December, Ukraine's emergencies minister, Viktor Baloga, who accompanied Helen Clark, chief of the UN Development Program, on her visit to Chernobyl, proposed that regular tours to Chernobyl begin in January 2011. Ms. Clark supported the idea, seeing it as an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the tragedy and of the importance of nuclear safety. She could see the economic potential of Chernobyl despite - or because of - its bleak history.
The UN official does have a point. In 2009, Forbes rated Chernobyl the world's most exotic tourist destination. It drew some 7,000 visitors that year.
As the host of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, Ukraine is preparing for an influx of international tourists. It is these tourists that Ukraine hopes to entice with trips to Chernobyl.
Ukrainians themselves have little interest in visiting the disaster site. "The majority of people here are more concerned about practical issues, such as benefits for the rescuers and the victims of the accident," says Ukrainian political analyst Alexei Poltorakov, who sees foreigners and young people who are into extreme tourism as the target market.
Pros and cons
It remains to be seen if the government can organize trips to the site of a nuclear disaster that will appeal to a broad base of tourists. According to the press service of the Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry, the ministry recently approved rules for trips to Chernobyl. The rules even contain specially developed routes for tour groups to follow that meet the ministry's two main goals: ensuring the safety of tourists and providing an opportunity to learn about the the history of the tragedy in detail.
Tour operators are not sure if government involvement will boost tourism in the area. Anna Surikova, director of the Kiev-based Sky Star Travel, which offers tours to Chernobyl, hopes that excursions will be easier to organize now. "Previously, we had to apply for permission to visit the site, and it was often denied," she says.
There is no consensus among experts on the wisdom of promoting tourism in an area contaminated with radiation. Ludwig Medyany, a spokesman for Ukraine's State Service for Tourism and Resorts, who has been to Chernobyl both before and after the disaster, believes it is a worthwhile tourist attraction. "People need to understand what a nuclear disaster could mean for our planet. Visiting Chernobyl changes people," he says.
For all the government regulations and specially developed routes, safety remains the number one concern for most experts. True, several hundred elderly people refused to leave Chernobyl after the disaster, and live there to this day. But the problem is that the radiation is spread unevenly across the area, and the level of contamination varies from place to place. The radiation background is very unstable and is shifted around by wind and rain. "There is a high risk that you will find yourself in a highly radioactive area," says Alexei Poltorakov.
But this may all be moot. Chernobyl's evocative Soviet past frozen in time by the nuclear disaster could be lost forever in just a few decades. Abandoned by humans, the area has been taken by nature. A whole new forest has grown there since 1986. "Sometimes you spot a herd of wild horses here," says Anna Surikova.
The ghost town of Pripyat is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area, with its haunting images of an abandoned school with textbooks left open on desks and a kindergarten with toys untouched for 25 years. "There are trees growing inside some of the buildings. This site will be buried by nature and turn to dust in time," says Ludwig Medyany.
Nature is gradually wiping away the last traces of civilization in Chernobyl. Whatever its fate, people must never forget that a man-made apocalypse can happen, and not just in video games and disaster movies.
RIA Novosti commentator Marina Selina
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