Visitors walk in the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in Ukraine, June 2 2019. Picture: REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO
Visitors walk in the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in Ukraine, June 2 2019. Picture: REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO

Chernobyl — The success of a US television series on Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear accident, has driven up the number of visitors to the ill-fated plant and ghost town of Pripyat.

One Chernobyl tour agency reported a 40% rise in bookings since the HBO series began in May to outstanding reviews.

English-language tours usually cost about $100 a visitor.

Last April marked the 33rd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine. It was 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 series depicts the explosion's aftermath, the vast clean-up operation and the inquiry.

The area around the plant is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where stray dogs roam and vegetation encroaches on windowless, abandoned buildings and expanses of rubble.

In Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people who worked mainly at the plant, an amusement park houses a rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and dodgem-car track, and a giant Ferris wheel that never went into operation. The wheel was to open on May 1 — the traditional May Day holiday.

Sergiy Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast tours, said his company saw a 30% rise  in tourists visiting  the area in May 2019 compared with the previous May. Bookings for June, July and August have risen about 40% since HBO aired the show, he said.

Yaroslav Yemelianenko, director of Chernobyl Tour, said he expected a similar increase of 30%-40% because of the show. His firm conducts tours of sites seen in the series, including the bunker where officials decided initially not to evacuate the area after the explosion.

Day trippers board buses in central Kiev to be driven 120km 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 Chernobyl.

They are then taken to see reactor No 4, which has since 2017 been covered by a metal dome 105m high enveloping the exploded core. The day finishes with a walk around Pripyat.

“Many people come here, they ask a lot of questions about the TV show, about all the events. People are getting more and more curious,” said tour guide Viktoria Brozhko, who insists the area is safe for visitors.

“During the entire visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, you get around two microsieverts, which is equal to the amount of radiation you’d get staying at home for 24 hours,” she said.

Same sky

When Craig Mazin, creator of the Chernobyl series, came to visit before writing the show, he said of his experience: “I'm not a religious man, but that's as religious as I'll ever feel.”

“To walk where they walked felt so strange, and also being under that same piece of sky you start to feel a little closer, in a sense, to who they were,” he said on an HBO podcast.

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 tens of thousands fled. The final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses such as cancer is subject to debate.

A Belarusian study estimatestotal cancer deaths due to the disaster at 115,000, and the World Health Organisation's estimate is 9,000.

“You can't really come to Kiev and not take the opportunity to see this unique place,” said visiting English nurse Gareth Burrows.

“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.”

Dutch student Thieme Bosman fears the tourist surge will have a downside. “There are quite a lot of tourists already here. It does kind of take away the experience of being in a completely abandoned town," he said. "I think if more and more tourists come here it will ruin the experience.”