Chornobyl zone: a national tragedy or tourist attraction?

  • Chornobyl zone: a national  tragedy or tourist attraction?
Issue 34, April 2011.

It is April again and so the traditional annual Chornobyl media frenzy is once more upon us. As this will be the 25th anniversary of the 1986 nuclear disaster, this year we are likely to see even more feature stories than usual popping up in the international press – doubly so given the additional editorial interest which has been generated in recent weeks by the ongoing crisis situation surrounding Japan’s nuclear power plants. Busloads of journalists are already en route to the Ukrainian capital and over the coming weeks they will make the pilgrimage to the exclusion zone north of Kyiv in order to experience the dubious thrill of exposure to the aftermath of Ukraine’s infamous nuclear disaster. They will no doubt then publish breathless accounts of their trip which highlight the apocalyptic scenes which they encountered in the ghost towns of the evacuated area, accompanied by artsy photo galleries depicting poignant scenes of abandoned playgrounds and decomposing children’s toys. However, the real tragedy here is that for most people in the outside world these hackneyed images of Chornobyl represent the sole indication they have of what modern Ukraine is all about.

Based on past experience it is already a fairly safe bet that Ukraine will receive more column inches and internet hits as a result of this month’s Chornobyl coverage than it will get from every single other story relating to the country for the remaining eleven months of the year. This has been the case every single year since independence in 1991 – with the honourable exception of the 2004 Orange Revolution and the brief period of pro-democracy Orange optimism which followed in its wake. Indeed, 25 years since the catastrophe, you could still sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the country’s unofficial slogan is actually: ‘Ukraine – home of the world’s worst nuclear disaster’.

Overshadowing Ukraine’s genuine tourist attractions
To a certain extent this is unavoidable. The Chornobyl disaster was a seminal event for the entire world and is rightly remembered all over the globe as an unrivalled symbol of manmade catastrophe. Nevertheless, this global importance does not suffice to justify the ghoulish tourist trade which has grown up around the disaster site since 1991 and which currently appears to be not only surviving but actually expanding. Officially sanctioned tours of the exclusion zone and reactor site were announced in late 2010, while private companies offering Chornobyl tours have long dominated all Google searches relating to ‘Ukrainian tourism’. Alarmingly, there is even talk of capitalizing further on Chornobyl’s notoriety next summer when hundreds of thousands of football fans invade the country for the Euro 2012 championships. These visiting fans should be encouraged to enjoy the delights of Kyiv’s sandy beaches but instead there is a danger that thousands of them will return home with tales of apocalyptic vistas and abandoned cities – exactly the kind of post-Soviet negativity which Ukraine desperately needs to shake off.

Ukraine’s conflicting brand signals: breadbasket abundance vs. post-apocalyptic wasteland

Image is a hugely important factor in today’s multi-media world and for far too long Ukaine has laboured under the burden imposed by its association with the Chornobyl disaster. For a country struggling to project an international image of agricultural wealth and natural fertility, this continued association with nuclear wastelands and environmental catastrophe has been an exercise in brand suicide. Since the Soviet collapse, Chornobyl’s dark appeal has succeeded in totally overshadowing the wealth of tourist attractions which contemporary Ukraine has to offer, not to mention running directly counter to the reality of Ukraine’s agricultural abundance. The opportunity cost of this damaging brand association could well be measured in the billions of dollars. Nevertheless, the sector itself continues to expand and there are signs that international demand for Chornobyl tours is still not being met - in late March government officials in Kyiv confirmed that figures for Chornobyl tourism are up for 2011 and the market is expected to grow further in the coming months due to the somewhat macabre residual interest in the site generated by Japan’s current nuclear concerns.

No educational excuse for trade in ‘tragedy tourism’

There is an argument to be made that tours of Chornobyl are educational in nature and should therefore be encouraged, but this ignores the uncomfortable realities of today’s growing Chornobyl tourist trade. The vast majority of people paying for coach trips to the exclusion zone are doing so not out of some high-minded desire to be better informed about the potential horrors of atomic energy, but rather in order to goggle at the devastation and pose for ironic holiday snaps in front of the sarcophagus encasing of the ill-fated reactor. It is the tourism equivalent of drivers who cannot resist slowing down in order to gawp at the grizzly aftermath of a particularly gruesome car crash – understandable perhaps on a human level, but hardly the kind of thing which governments would usually condone or encourage. If educating and informing the wider world about Chornobyl were really the objectives of the exclusion zone tourism trade, then it would require little thought and even less effort for the relevant government ministries to organize regular official press tours that would provide the world’s media with more than enough material for their annual Chornobyl retrospectives. Instead, what we have today is a morally dubious industry which causes considerable damage to Ukraine’s international image as a potential agricultural superpower and keeps the country’s many genuine tourist attractions firmly trapped under a mushroom cloud of negativity. As Ukrainians prepare to mark 25 years since the start of the nation’s ongoing Chornobyl nightmare, perhaps now is the time to reconsider this tasteless tourist trade.