When a nuclear plant exploded in northern Ukraine in April 1986, Soviet authorities went to great lengths to control information about the disaster — even cutting off private telephone conversations when the word Chernobyl was used.
Now, in a strange turn more than three decades after the meltdown, the exclusion area around Chernobyl is gaining a following as a tourism destination, apparently propelled by the popularity of a TV miniseries about the blast that was broadcast in the United States and Britain last month.
The miniseries, HBO’s “Chernobyl,” fictionalizes the events in the aftermath of the explosion and fire at the plant’s Unit 4 nuclear reactor. It has been one of the highest-rated shows on the IMDB charts.
“The number of visitors increases every day, every week, by 30, 40, now almost 50 percent,” said Victor Korol, the head of SoloEast, a company that gives tours of the site. “People watch TV, and they want to go there and see the place, how it looks.”
“In May 2018, we had 1,251 visitors. Last month, we had 1,860 — a 48 percent increase,” Korol said.
According to figures from the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, tourism to Chernobyl has been growing quickly over the past five years. In 2014, a spokeswoman said, the site had 8,404 visitors; in 2018, that number was 71,862. In May 2019 alone, she added, the site had 12,591.
Joe Ponte, managing director of Explore, a company that focuses on adventure travel, said that passenger numbers for the firm’s five-day Discover Chernobyl tour had increased fourfold since the miniseries aired in May.
But as tourist numbers increase, so has concern about the behavior of visitors to the site of a disaster that was blamed for thousands of deaths in the following years and whose dire consequences for the environment linger decades later.
Those misgivings burst onto social media this week when photographs emerged that were criticized for disrespecting the victims and the solemnity of the site.
One example widely cited was of a woman who shed most of a hazmat suit to pose provocatively in the ghost city of Pripyat, which was evacuated after the accident.
The photographs prompted Craig Mazin, the writer and producer of “Chernobyl,” to call on tourists to be considerate to the memory of those who lost their lives or livelihoods.