Chernobyl and Dark Tourism– Why thousands flock to a site of death and suffering

A gasmask attached to a sting in an abandoned school so tourists can stand behind it for a photo opportunity. Photo: Cathal Charker

The Chernobyl exclusion zone is known worldwide as a place of desolation and hardship, yet this still dangerously radiated area is a tourist hotspot, why?

Cold air. Damp and deteriorating. Quiet and reflective. A monument to the direct deaths of 38 people and 4000 more through indirect radiation exposure. The environment is hostile and unsafe. Security guards patrol the region and guard vital checkpoints. Radiation seeps through the land, generally safe in short bursts but with deadly effects after long exposure. These all describe the Chernobyl exclusion zone. With all this being said, why does the exclusion zone get over 10,000 tourists a year, often paying over €65 just to spend a few hours in the abandoned area? As part of my research into the topic, I decided to take one such tour.

One of many busses that tour the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Photo: Cathal Charker

My tour group and I (about 20 people) started off in Kiev, about 2 hours by bus away from the exclusion zone. A few days before hand I had paid 2253 Ukrainian Hryvnia (€70) in cash as well as provided my passport details. Now, I was being shuffled onto a bus (by an oddly cheerful tour guide considering the subject matter), and not quite sure what I was expecting from the day, I took my seat at the back and decided to observe for a moment. Nothing particularly stood out to me about my fellow bus mates, some were young, some were older, some were with their families, some had come alone.

Many different types of people go to Chernobyl each year for many different reasons, some for the history, some for the visuals, some just because it’s there and some exactly because of a morbid fascination with the zone. Dr. Peter Hohenhaus, founder of the site www.dark-tourism.com and a prolific visitor of sites with troubled pasts visits for his own reasons. “I especially enjoy the educational aspects of Dark Tourism.” he states. “I’ve learned more about the world through this than through my formal education or in my entire academic career.”

There was a jovial atmosphere on the bus, for a while we all just sat there, talking in our groups and listening to the tour guide’s dark humour. Eventually a screen near the front of the bus flickered to life and a documentary about Chernobyl started playing. A very long documentary.

The documentary recounted the events of the incident, seemingly going through the motions to get everybody on the same level. Memory of exactly what was said is a little fuzzy, but I imagine it went a little something like this:

What happened at Chernobyl (Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the convenient literary device)

25th April 1986. Just a regular day in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Chernobyl, northern Ukraine, people work, play and live in the town of Pripyat whilst a nearby nuclear power plant chugs away. A simulated blackout and safety test is scheduled at the plant for later that night. Workers start powering down the reactor for the test as described by the protocol. Nobody knows that this will be the day everything changes. The region will be abandoned, people will die, their lives lost to radiation sickness. Everything changes that night.

At 1am the following morning, a reactor at the plant explodes, alarms blare, workers rush to contain the disaster, though a great deal, it would still have been containable. 40 seconds later a second explosion occurs, this one scattering radiation across the land. Reactor 4 had overheated and reached a critical meltdown. Reports issued after the fact place the blame on insufficient infrastructure, poorly designed systems and incompetence of the workers performing the safety test. Regardless, a response is immediately issued. The Soviet Union scrambles to solve the problem. Firefighters fight tooth and nail to control the fires, many of whom such as their leader Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik would die from radiation sickness. They were unaware of the dangers. These brave men would work till 7 in the morning to contain and extinguish the fires, though the fire contained within reactor 4 continued to burn for many days.

The monument to the emergency response workers who gave their lives to contain the disaster. Photo: Cathal Charker

Pripyat was not immediately evacuated nor was the government of Ukraine even informed until much later. The plant was property of the Soviet Union, not the Ukrainian Republic. However as more and more people fell ill due to the radiation, evacuation efforts were put in place which materialised on the 27th of April, everyone was evacuated with the promise that they’d be returned to their homes in three days. Left behind belongings litter the buildings to this day. Following the evacuation, the exclusion zone was set up, an (eventually) 30km area centred around the plant that was cordoned off from the public due to the dangers of the radiation that now soaked the area.

With the reactor still leaking radiation a large concrete structure dubbed “the sarcophagus” was hastily constructed to contain the radiation. This worked to some degree, whilst the area wasn’t entirely habitable again, the situation was prevented from becoming worse and workers could resume work at the plant.

The disaster was over, for the most part. Many had died and many more would follow from the radiation.

And with that out of the way:

With the long, boring documentary done with and everyone on the bus now up to speed with the history of the area we finally arrived at the security checkpoint and entrance to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. We were all forced off the bus, told to line up in a single file, have our passports ready for inspection and take no photographs of the checkpoint or its many armed guards. This would have all been quite intimidating I’d imagine, if not for the gift shop two feet away from us… This would be the second time I had a weird feeling about the trip, but I still couldn’t place it.

The information centre and gift shop before Chernobyl, directly behind this picture is the armed checkpoint. Photo: Cathal Charker

Finally, we were in the zone. It didn’t feel any different than before the checkpoint. The air was still fresh, the sun was still beaming, it was a bright and lovely day. Total atmosphere ruiner in other words.

Now entering Chernobyl, population 690 Photo: Cathal Charker

We continued our trip to our first stop, a small abandoned village with a community centre. As we get off the bus we’re greeted by some of the zone’s fluffier inhabitants; two wild dogs. A common site in the zone. These dogs aren’t vicious or rabid as one would expect. Friendly as any dog back home, these wild animals make their living by begging for treats from snack-laden tourists. We stand in this abandoned community centre, walls deteriorating, floorboards split apart, a damp feeling in the air with our tour guide cracking jokes and two dogs rolling about outside for treats. It’s a weird occurrence. One that wasn’t expected when I booked the trip.

The community centre, the first stop in our tour of Chernobyl. Photo: Cathal Charker

It’s certainly a strange line of thought. What do people come to these places for? Why is such a place, one crawling with suffering, flowing with radiation and covered in unchecked nature and decrepit buildings still one of Ukraine’s most popular tourist destinations?

“50,000 people used to live here, now it’s a… tourist zone?” Photo: Cathal Charker

Tourism for all the wrong reasons?

Dark Tourism is the study of why people go to places commonly associated with death or suffering such as Chernobyl. The most famous of these places is Auschwitz concentration camp. A symbol of the holocaust, Auschwitz was a combination of labour camp and extermination facility where during its almost five years of operation an estimated 1.1 million people were killed. Now it’s a prime tourist location with over 1 million visitors a year. Tourists line up to take pictures at the famous gates of Auschwitz or the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. People have always appeared to have some fascination with death. Other such sites of dark tourism include Ground Zero in New York, the areas associated with Jack the Ripper in London, the Hiroshima memorial park in Japan, and the Nanjing massacre memorial hall in China.

Though Auschwitz and Chernobyl are of a much grander scale than anything that came before, the appeal has always been there. One such example is that of gladiatorial combat represented best by the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum, in Rome. During its use as an arena, the audience averaged out to be 65,000 people. Since then the Colosseum has become a massive tourist attraction that ignites the feeling of gladiators and glory in those that visit. This was an era where public executions were a nice family day out. Death has always held an appeal to humanity.

Our tour seemingly proves that, people rush to see abandoned nurseries where 30-year-old dolls line the walls or jump at an opportunity to take a photo with a child’s gasmask left behind in a school once brimming with life. Even in such a macabre area, there are still as much must have photo sites as in Paris.

So, what’s the reason that dark tourism sites are so popular? Co-founder of the term Professor John Lennon once said people are “motivated by a desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.” However, Dr. Peter Hohenhaus somewhat disagrees. “The alleged motivation of confronting one’s own mortality… is something I have heard expressed by tourists in only two cases” he states. Dr. Hohenhaus believes the topic is way too broad for such a large generalization. “What attracts some people to Chernobyl won’t be the same as what attracts others to the memorials and battlefields of WW1”.

Why Ukraine?

So, if there are dark tourism sites all around the world what makes Ukraine’s situation so unique? Well it’s all a matter of perception. Ukraine is a country primarily known for one thing these days and it’s not exactly positive. Despite boasting World Heritage sites and some of the oldest cities in Europe, when Ukraine appears in the news, it’s because of the war in Donbas. Tourism has dropped dramatically since the start of the conflict; the country saw a 10 million tourist drop in 2014, more than 50 percent. Though slowly recovering as the situation stabilises, the country has lost more than half of its tourism industry, which in an already struggling economy isn’t a luxury they can afford.

Ukraine’s tourism industry exists primarily because of unfortunate reasons. Most foreigners in the country are only using it as a “transit country”. That is to say that they’re only there to go to a different place or to trade with the other side. With seven neighbours and one of the largest landmasses in Europe, Ukraine struggles with keeping people in the country. Those that do stay, do so for mostly bad reasons. These include the dark tourism of Chernobyl, as well as the holocaust and Holodomor famine but also a booming sex tourism industry supported by poor living conditions and high levels of government corruption. The main reason many tourists visit is also due to how cheap the country is, with Ukraine’s currency the hryvnia at a near all-time low.

This puts Ukraine’s government in a rather tough situation. Do they encourage tourists to visit for such reasons? To play up the Chernobyl disaster or to use the failing economy as a marketing tactic or do they try to remedy the situation to improve the reputation of the country but risk losing what little tourism industry they have?

To go to Ukraine as a tourist is relatively simple. Ukraine has a visa-free entry status with over 60 countries, including the entirety of the European Union, the USA, Canada and Russia. Additionally, citizens from 33 other countries such as Australia, China and India can acquire a visa at one of Ukraine’s airports on entry. However, despite such wide-reaching visa exemption,s foreigners entering the country primarily come from Ukraine’s neighbours with Turkey, Israel and Germany following.

Chernobyl has seen a definite uptick in tourism in recent years. Whilst the war had an impact on this with only 5900 visitors in 2014, this number has more than doubled since, in part due to the new safety provided by the new protective shell. Dr. Hohenhaus, who went in both 2006 and 2015 noted this difference. “In 2006 we were a group of six” he explains, at the time “only one tourist group per day was allowed”. Now there are over 10,000 visitors to the zone every year. Buses queue up at security checkpoints and you’re never truly alone with just your group. Peter had booked a private tour for just himself and his wife for his last visit on personal recommendation. “The ‘group dynamics’ of such a whole coachload of visitors seriously detracts from the ghost-town nature of the place and from the feeling of silent abandonedness and post-disaster forlornness”.

Graph showing the various status of visa requirements for Ukraine Photo: Wikimedia

Back to the main event:

Our tour took a brief interlude when we stopped for lunch in Chernobyl town. It wasn’t much, oily mushrooms and potatoes but it was still appreciated. Following this, we went to see one of the main attractions; the plant itself. Due to the fact it’s still a working nuclear plant that contains one of the most radioactive places on the planet we weren’t really allowed to get close or spend much time there. We got off the bus, petted some dogs and took some photos. No historical information was given, jokes were made, it was rather casual, maybe too casual.

The new protective shell covering reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, construction of which cost €1.5 billion, that has allowed Chernobyl to become a tourist hotspot Photo: Cathal Charker

From there however, we proceeded to what is certainly the best part of the experience, the abandoned town of Pripyat. We were asked if we wanted to bus everywhere or walk through the town, we chose to walk. We explored derelict buildings, talked amongst ourselves and had a rather fun time of things. It was fun and that is weird to say. Whether that was the risk of everything making it a bit more exciting (with our tour guide constantly saying, “We’re not supposed to go in here but….”) or just the nice sunny weather and good company I don’t know, but it was fun.

Now entering Pripyat, population 0 (or so they say) Photo: Cathal Charker

Whether the deep and contemplative experience of Auschwitz or the fun, dark-humoured experience in Chernobyl was better is up to personal preference but it does raise an interesting point about the different types of dark tourism and why people go there. The London Dungeons for example seem to completely target those who care not for history but for gallows humour and spooky moments.

Pripyat contains the clear majority of the more macabre sights in the zone ranging from abandoned schools to abandoned pools. This potentially makes it even more interesting than the power plant itself. By framing the area as a sort of “This is how things used to be” exhibit, Pripyat really shows the devastation caused by the incident. This is probably why it’s the most famous part of the zone. From photo galleries to music videos, to video games, the ghost town of Pripyat is famous across the globe for its visuals. The visual of decay and rot.

However, there is a certain feeling to being in Pripyat that my large exposure to it through pop-culture didn’t quite match. Dr. Hohenhaus echoes this statement “there’s something about being at a particular place that reading about it at home or seeing photos cannot replace”. Indeed, though I’ve seen a vast array of media relating to Pripyat, nothing matches the feeling of being here.

‘Get the Pripyat look’ Photo: Cathal Charker

Following Pripyat, the tour wound down to a close, the only sights left to see were an abandoned radar installation that according to the tour guide was either completely useless or a secret soviet weapon of mass destruction. In reality it was just annoying. Still, this giant installation, the history behind it and its presence as one of the mainstays of the Chernobyl tour is evidence of the love for dark tourism. Sure, it’s just a giant metal eyesore but the fact it could be a crazy soviet experiment makes it interesting.

The Soviet Woodpecker, a giant, extremely expensive way to annoy your neighbours. Worth it. Photo: Cathal Charker

A relic of a bygone age of nuclear panic, Cold War paranoia and good old fashioned “Sovietness” Chernobyl stands as one of the few remaining monuments to such a time. Whilst there, you truly get the sense of a land left behind to time. What isn’t falling apart is distinctly Soviet in design and the food, facilities and large number of potholes reflect this very well. The Zone has always been subject to conspiracies relating to the Soviet Union. Whether this manifests as fictional stories about Soviet mind control or investigative documentaries into Chernobyl being an inside job it’s clear that Chernobyl captures the hearts and minds of many.

To Dr. Hohenhaus it’s the same story “Personally I regard Chernobyl as the pinnacle of Dark Tourism. That’s partly because it is also a kind of dual time travel: back in time (to the Soviet era) as well as forward in time – providing a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future after human civilization has ended,” he says.

As we prepare to leave the zone we must go through two radiation checks beforehand. They serve as a reminder that the zone is still somewhat dangerous and needs to be contained. Regardless, we leave on the bus we rode in on and head back to Kiev.

On the edge of humanity:

My experiences with Chernobyl lead me to a lot of questions. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. Did I get what I wanted from it? I’m not so sure. Dark tourism appeals to people for many different reasons. Some like to be humbled by it, some just like a good spooky story, some just like to exercise their dark sense of humour.

Regardless of what exactly about Chernobyl and similar places appeals to people varies by individual and it remains to be seen whether a true concrete answer will ever be given on the matter. To Ukraine and especially its government and tourism board, those questions might not even matter. Chernobyl is a gold mine for tourism, it’s known across the world, it’s heavily featured in pop-culture and it’s an experience that isn’t replicated anywhere else.

Though it might have a dark past, it’s clear that Chernobyl and its 30km exclusion zone has a bright future ahead of it.

If you are interested in dark tourism you can check out Dr. Peter Hohenhaus’ website @ http://www.dark-tourism.com/ or follow him on Facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/darktourismtravel for a comprehensive guide and explanation to what dark tourism is and various places to go.