Once at the center of a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone, Chernobyl has seen a sharp rise in visitors since an HBO mini-series about the tragedy aired earlier this year. And according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, it is now time for a different narrative surrounding the site.
“We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life,” Zelensky said as he signed a decree on Wednesday. “Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. It’s time to change it.”
On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, forcing a region-wide evacuation and sending radioactive fallout billowing across Europe. While the explosion itself caused around 31 deaths, millions of people were exposed to dangerous radiation levels.
The final death toll as a result of long-term radiation exposure is much disputed. Although the UN predicted up to 9,000 related cancer deaths back in 2005, Greenpeace later estimated up to 200,000 fatalities, taking further health problems connected to the disaster into account.
For more than two decades, authorities maintained the exclusion zone around the reactor, including the city of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people.
While many might imagine the region as bleak and desolate, the president praised its environmental regeneration.
In a statement posted on his official website, Zelensky said: “Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature revives after a global man-made disaster, where there is a real “ghost town”. We have to show this place to the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists.”
While much of the area has been open to tourists since 2011, the president’s words are likely to boost what some have described as “dark tourism” in the region.
That said, Zelensky is keen to develop the region for the better and give it more of a mainstream appeal. During a visit to Chernobyl on Wednesday, the president pledged to transform the “exclusion zone” into “one of the growth points of a new Ukraine.”
He added: “First of all, we will create a “green corridor” for tourists.”
According to Sergii Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast which has been running tours to Chernobyl since 2000, such a corridor will offer official and safe entry to the exclusion zone.
Ivanchuk welcomed the move, which he hopes will cut down on the “bureaucracy” currently surrounding visits to the area.
Officially designating the site as a tourist attraction will hopefully mean an end to corruption in the area, where black market practices are common, according to the president.
Chernobyl has become one of the most popular examples of the phenomenon known as dark tourism — a term for visiting sites associated with death and suffering, such as Nazi concentration camps in Europe or the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. The trend has seen a sharp rise in recent months since the runaway success of HBO’s Chernobyl.
Its success has led to a surge in the number of visitors to the site in Ukraine, some of whom have posted images of themselves posing with the wrecked buildings and vehicles left behind by those who fled for their lives.
While travelers are currently permitted to visit Chernobyl with a guide, there is no official Ukrainian law in place authorizing tourism in the exclusion zone.
The president said black market practices would be stamped out with the introduction of electronic ticketing. “Unfortunately, the exclusion zone is also a symbol of corruption in Ukraine,” he said. “These are bribes that security officials collect from tourists, the illegal export of scrap and the use of natural resources.
“We will stop all this very soon. Let’s finally stop scaring off tourists and turn the exclusion zone into a scientific and upcoming tourist magnet. Let’s make it a land of freedom that will become one of the symbols of a new Ukraine. Without corruption. Without unnecessary prohibitions.”
According to the decree issued by the president, the makeover will involve developing new tourist routes including waterways, building new checkpoints and restoring and upgrading existing ones.
“Groundless restrictions and prohibitions” such as the ban on filming will be abolished while mobile communication will be improved.
Ivanchuk’s company took 11,000 visitors to the region last year and has seen a 40 per cent rise in interest since HBO’s Chernobyl aired.
He said the absence of human inhabitants has allowed nature to flourish in the area.
Only about 150 elderly people still live in the 19-mile radius exclusion zone, in defiance of authorities. Officials say it will only be safe for humans to live there again in 24,000 years, according to AFP, although with the right paperwork tourists can visit for short periods.
“There’s no hunting or fishing there so wildlife is booming,” Ivanchuk told CNN.
“Animals that left the area years ago are starting to come back like eagles, wolves and moose. Lynx were recently spotted there for the first time in more than 50 years.”
But Olena Burdo, a junior researcher at the radiobiology and radioecology department of the Kyiv Institute for Nuclear Research, did not welcome the government move.
More scientific research and funds for radiobiological study was needed, she told CNN, adding: “But we don’t need so many tourists.”
The president’s announcement came at the inauguration of a new metal dome at Chernobyl which will encase the destroyed reactor in order to prevent radioactive material from leaking out.
Weighing in at 36,000 tonnes and measuring 108-metre high, the 1.5 billion euro ($1.7 billion) structure was paid for via a special fund launched by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and sponsored by 45 countries, AFP reported.
The structure is strong enough to withstand a tornado and is built to last a century, the EBRD said.