Chernobyl: The Tourist Mecca that Never Was?
19 April, 2020

Just a few months ago it seemed like nothing could go wrong for Chernobyl. Tourism was on the rise – one travel agency reported a 40% rise in trip bookings back in June 2019. A month later, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tasked the government with developing the brand message “Safe Chernobyl”. Fast forward, and nine months later things aren’t looking so bright anymore.

A new confinement shelter at the Chernobyl plant was opened by the head of state personally in July, which was promised to last 100 years. Among the tasks set by Zelenskyy at the time was to increase funding to ensure that the fire safety was up to par in the exclusion zone.

But it was that very fire that was destined to chip away at all these efforts. So much for the promising arrival of the long-awaited low-cost airlines, like Ryanair, in the country.

READ MORE: Fire in Chernobyl Zone Spreads over 100 Hectares. Radiation 10 Times the Norm

Not to mention, the impending global economic crisis will affect everybody – including those willing to check out the exclusion zone for themselves after the highly acclaimed HBO series did its share in popularizing Chernobyl in 2019. But travel might never be the same again. 

Another low-cost airline popular with Ukrainians, Hungarian Wizz Air, is cutting close to a fifth of its workforce (1,000 people) and reducing the wages of top management, pilots and crew by up to 22%. Germanwings, Lufthansa’s low-cost brand, has already been axed.

Now with the coronavirus pandemic stopping traveling in its tracks and actions of arsonists that led to a lion’s share of tourist objects being lost in forest fires, it seems unlikely the destination will recover anytime soon.

READ MORE: The Burning of Chernobyl’s Radioactive Forests (PHOTO REPORT)

According to the head of Chernobyl TOUR, Yaroslav Yemelianenko, almost a third of all sites previously visited by tourists on extended tours of the area will never recover. These included Soviet retreats that featured traditional paintings and authentic villages portraying the lives of people who had previously inhabited the area. Not even metal objects were spared by the blaze.

At the same time, there is some light at the end of the tunnel – key locations survived the fire for now, Yemelianenko said.

However, after the first Chernobyl fire was finally put out on April 14 – thanks in part to the rain that came to Ukraine at the time – more bad news followed on April 16. The ongoing smoldering ashes, coupled with a dust storm, rekindled the fires near Chernobyl.

READ MORE:"Sandstorm" Rekindling Chernobyl Blaze, Says Tour Director

According to local ecologist Denys Vyshnevskyi, the latest events call for a “new vision of the zone” and a new fire management strategy. Due to a snowless winter and dry spring, the potential of a fire will remain high. As the climate is changing, it was only a question of when, not if, for the fires to start, believes the ecologist.

His thoughts are echoed by Yevhen Yakovlev, an academic at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU). He points to the critically low levels of groundwater which greatly increase the chances of soils catching fire.

READ MORE: Chernobyl Zone After Huge Blaze (VIDEO)

At the same time, there is no threat of high radiation background beyond the directly affected areas, believes Mykhailo Baytala, the head of barrier function control in the Exclusion Zone. This is confirmed by NASU informatics department expert Ivan Kovalets, who does, however, admit that air pollution in Ukraine and Kyiv particularly is high compared to the rest of Europe, although this is an ongoing problem which has only been exacerbated by the recent events.

READ MORE: Kyiv Recognized Most Polluted City in the World