Sixteen years ago today the world's worst civilian nuclear accident turned Chornobyl into a byword for disaster. The images broadcast on television appeared like scenes from a terrible war against an invisible enemy. The world watched the hissing Geiger counters, the firefighters trying to plug the gaping hole in the reactor, the evacuations of thousands from what became known as "the zone" with a mixture of fascination and horror. For years, the zone remained closed to all outsiders. But now, in a surprising move, the Ukrainian government has begun to promote limited tourism to the area. It's not for everyone, but those who prefer to experience things first-hand can now sign up for a day trip to Chornobyl, and it even comes with lunch included.
Prague, 26 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This is eco-tourism with a difference -- no tents, mosquito repellent, or scuba-diving gear needed. Instead, standard equipment includes a Geiger counter, protective clothing, and a disposable respirator. Contact with the surrounding environment is limited to a few hours and most of the sights are, sadly, all too man-made. Welcome to the "Chornobyl Tour" currently being offered by the Kyiv-based SAM travel agency.
Thanks to an exclusive contract with the Ukrainian government, the SAM travel agency has actually been organizing visits to Chornobyl for journalists, scientists, and environmental activists since the end of 1998. But starting last year, trips were expanded to include ordinary tourists.
Tour operator Taras Gorkun told RFE/RL that everyone who takes part in the one-day tour returns to Kyiv deeply moved. "They are struck most not by individual sites but by the whole experience. You know the saying: 'Better to see something with your own eyes once than to hear about it a hundred times.' To see with their own eyes what they have read about in the press or seen on television is much more impressive to them. It's clear they won't come back for a second visit [chuckle], but the reactions are very enthusiastic," Gorkun said.
So what do tourists see on the Chornobyl Tour and how is the day spent? For participants, the tour begins at 8 a.m. in Kyiv, with a mini-bus pickup from the hotel. Two hours later, the bus reaches the so-called "exclusion zone." After the 1986 explosion, some 135,000 people living within a 30-kilometer radius of the crippled reactor -- including all 47,000 inhabitants of the city of Prypyat -- were permanently evacuated due to high radiation levels. The zone was colored red on maps and military checkpoints were established around its perimeter, which guard the area to this day.
At the perimeter checkpoint, tour participants are met by scientists working within the zone. They switch buses and don protective overalls. They also receive a Geiger counter and a disposable respirator. Gorkun described the rest of the journey.
"They follow a specific route in the zone. They see such sites as the so-called Red Forest, which suffered radiation contamination from the explosion. They see lakes. From an observation platform they can see the reactor -- it's located about 100 meters from the reactor. On the platform there is a model of the sarcophagus [which encloses the destroyed reactor]. They are shown a video. They can also meet with specialists working in the zone. They visit the dead city of Prypyat. They enter the apartment buildings, climb up on the roofs. Everything depends on the visitors' wishes," Gorkun said.
Lunch is included -- and as Gorkun was quick to stress, the produce is tested for safety. "All the products are brought up from Kyiv. We do not buy produce which is grown there [in the zone] and sold in the surrounding villages and markets. You can say we provide ecologically clean food."
After a visit to a junkyard where thousands of vehicles too radioactive to be taken out of the zone lie in a scrap heap, tour participants can also meet some of the handful of locals who have chosen to remain in the zone -- despite warnings about the health hazards and government efforts to move them out.
At 4 p.m., Geiger counters and protective suits are returned, the checkpoint is crossed and the tour leaves the eerie quiet of the zone for the bustle of Kyiv.
So what kind of people sign up for the tour? Gorkun said most are just curious foreigners. "They are just regular tourists. They are all foreigners -- either people working in Ukraine on short-term contracts or visitors on tour. Last year, we had about 40 tourists. Since the start of this year, we've taken 10 people up there."
Clearly, Chornobyl tourism is a niche market. Gorkun described it as "eco-extreme tourism." But should the tours be taking place at all?
Tobias Muenchmeyer, an activist with the environmental group Greenpeace said "no." Muenchmeyer, who has himself spent time in the zone and studied the effects of the Chornobyl catastrophe on local people and the environment, told RFE/RL that taking tourists near the reactor is irresponsible.
Muenchmeyer confirmed that visiting the zone, with its entombed reactor and the nearby deserted city of Prypyat, is an unforgettable experience. But even a day spent in the area, with its patches of high ambient radiation could pose a health risk, especially to young women of childbearing age. The problem, says Muenchmeyer, is that highly contaminated radiation hot spots occur in patches throughout the zone and can shift unpredictably when brush fires or rain occur. "This is not like a day trip to the Grand Canyon," said Muenchmeyer. There are dangers, he stressed, and he personally deplores the idea of commercializing this modern human tragedy.
Samuel Lepicard, a scientist at the French-based Study Center On The Evaluation of Nuclear Protection (Centre D'Etude Sur L'Evaluation de la Protection dans le Domaine Nucleaire), does not necessarily share this view. Lepicard told RFE/RL that fellow scientists from his institute have mapped areas of the exclusion zone where ambient radiation levels are no higher than in any European city. But he does agree that in some spots, radiation levels can spike to levels 500 times higher than normal.
In any event, caution is advised. Now that the option of a trip to the zone is open, it will be up to prospective travelers to make up their own minds whether a day touring Chornobyl is vacation time well spent.