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HBO show’s popularity drives Chornobyl tourism boom

The success of a U.S. television miniseries examining the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chornobyl has driven up the number of tourists wanting to see the plant and the ghost town in Ukraine.

One Chornobyl tour agency reported a 40 per cent rise in trip bookings since the series, made by HBO, began in May and which has attracted outstanding reviews.

The five-episode miniseries has the highest rating on IMDb, a database of film and TV rankings, for a TV series.

English-language tours usually cost around $100 US per person.

Last April marked the 33rd anniversary of the disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine, caused by a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant that sent clouds of nuclear material across much of Europe.

The HBO miniseries, called Chernobyl, depicts the explosion’s aftermath, the vast cleanup operation and the subsequent inquiry.

Visitors wait in line at a souvenir shop next to the Dytyatky checkpoint after a tour in the Chornobyl exclusion zone on June 7, 2019. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

The area around the plant retains the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where stray dogs roam and vegetation encroaches into windowless, abandoned buildings strewn with rubble.

In Prypyat, a ghost town once home to 50,000 people who mainly worked at the plant, an amusement park houses a rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and dodgem-car track, and a giant ferris wheel.

Sergiy Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast tours, said the company saw a 30 per cent increase in tourists going to the area in May compared with the same month last year. Bookings for June, July and August have risen by approximately 40 per cent since HBO aired the show, he said.

Yaroslav Yemelianenko, director of Chornobyl Tour, said he expected a similar increase of 30 to 40 per cent because of the show.

His company offers a tour of locations depicted in the series, including the bunker where local officials made the initial decision not to evacuate after the explosion.

Day-trippers board buses in the centre of Kyiv and are driven 120 kilometres to the area, where they can see monuments to the victims and abandoned villages and have lunch in the only restaurant in the town of Chornobyl.

Sergiy Parashyn, right, who was the Communist party co-ordinator of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, walks with a group of visitors in the underground shelter the plant on June 7, 2019. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

They are then taken to see reactor number four, which since 2016 has been covered by a vast metal dome 108 metres high which envelops the exploded core. The day finishes with a walk around Prypyat.

The disaster and the government’s handling of it — the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident — highlighted the shortcomings of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy.

The accident killed 31 right away and forced tens of thousands to flee. The final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses such as cancer is subject to debate.

A Belarusian study estimates the total cancer deaths from the disaster at 115,000, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s estimate of 9,000.

A woman films a ferris wheel in Prypyat near the Chornobyl nuclear power plant on April 8, 2016. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

“You can’t really come to Kyiv and not take the opportunity to see this unique place,” said Gareth Burrows, a 39-year-old nurse practitioner from southern England.

“We only ended up watching the show because we were already coming, but I think you will see an increase in tourism because of the show, it will definitely spark interest.”

Thieme Bosman, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands, worries that the bump in tourist numbers will have a downside.

“There are quite a lot of tourists already here and it does kind of take away the experience of being in a completely abandoned town, so I think if more and more tourists come here that will ruin the experience,” he said.

Producer urges respect

In a tweet posted last Tuesday, Craig Mazin, a writer and producer of the HBO series, said there appears to be some photos circulating on social media of visitors not showing respect for what occurred in the aftermath of the nuclear accident.

“It’s wonderful that #ChernobylHBO has inspired a wave of tourism to the Zone of Exclusion. But yes, I’ve seen the photos going around,” he wrote.

“If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed.”