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Analysis & Opinion
21.12.10 Grief Tourism
By Andrew Roth

Chernobyl has had a difficult reception in the tourism business. Taunting slogans, such as “Visit Chernobyl, Ukraine’s Top Nuclear Wasteland,” were ubiquitous on popular news blogs last week. They appeared after an announcement by Ukrainian officials that formal tours would be offered to visitors to the so-called “exclusion zone,” the area that surrounds the site of the Chernobyl power plant, starting in 2011. As Ukraine enters the “grief tourism” niche, how will Chernobyl and the “zone” change as a result? Will the space become a memorial to the victims of the accident, a center for eco-tourism, or a playground for travelers seeking the most “extreme” adventures?

After midnight on April 26, 1986, explosions ripped through Chernobyl reactor number four, releasing a massive radioactive cloud into the night air. The costs of the tragedy were immeasurable – beyond those who died in the explosion and the ensuing cleanup, hundreds of thousands were exposed to radiation, entire communities had to be evacuated and cancer rates among children skyrocketed. An “Exclusion Zone” with a radius of 30 kilometers was established around the reactor, and remains out-of-bounds for the majority of the public to this day.

Chernobyl’s evolution into an international tourist attraction immediately draws comparisons to other sites notable for their terrible histories, including the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz and Ground Zero in New York. These sites cater to the phenomenon coined “grief tourism.” They exist as both memorials and museums, honoring the dead but also shocking visitors with visceral reminders of brutality and suffering. Some of these sites are also extremely popular: Auschwitz-Birkenau had over 1.3 million visitors last year.

Many of the stops on the “grief tourism” circuit are united because they are the sites of man-made, and not natural, tragedies. Svetlana Alexievich, the author of Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, said that she considers this, the danger we can pose to ourselves, the most important lesson of the Chernobyl tragedy. “What I wanted to show in my book is that Chernobyl is a kind of extreme – it shows the finite nature of life. All of a sudden at Chernobyl we saw how easily we can destroy ourselves.” Indeed, even among other sites, the “zone” at Chernobyl is unique for its size and the fact that in many areas it remains dangerous so long after the initial accident.

The fascination with the “exclusion zone” has propelled it into popular culture. In 2004 a young woman calling herself Elena claimed to have travelled through the zone on a motorcycle. Her Web site, a travelogue with photographs, was declared a hoax, but not before it went viral and fostered greater interest in travelling to the area. In addition, a popular computer game, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” was developed and released in Ukraine in 2007, selling two million copies. In the game, the main character must navigate a dangerous replica of the real-life zone surrounding Chernobyl after a nuclear incident. The game borrows terminology from “Stalker,” a film by Andrei Tarkovsky released seven years before the accident at Chernobyl. Eerily, the film features a depopulated area called “the zone,” which has been quarantined by the government.

Yet the environment inside the real “exclusion zone” is far different from the barren wasteland popularly imagined. Mary Mycio, the author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, explained that since the evacuation, resurgent vegetation had already covered many of the signs that people lived there earlier. “There is an eeriness if you know what you’re looking at,” she said. “All you see on either side of you is a road with a wall of trees. But if you look inside, there’s usually a hole, like a black hole, in the trees, and what you find is that it’s actually a village road. The trees have just taken over. The desolation is something that you don’t see if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

While much of the land near Chernobyl has healed, memories of the catastrophe remain deep wounds for those who lived close to the power plant. Tatyana Chebrova is an artist and a journalist from Kiev, and a member of Strontium-90, a local art collective that is trying to attract more attention to the lasting consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. She is convinced that the planned tours would cater more to a crowd seeking adventure than one hoping to find a memorial to the victims of the tragedy. “Wherever there’s a commercial interest, there won’t be a focus on the memory. There will be diversions. It’s like a safari in Africa – I don’t think there will be any sort of moral component. It will be extreme, shocking.”

Vadim Chumak, a representative of the Research Center for Radiation Medicine of Ukraine, certainly gave the impression that the tours would lend themselves more to exploration and adventure than to a memorial. In an interview with LiveScience, he suggested some possible activities for the “zone,” saying that visitors might “go close to the power plant” or “see and feed large catfish from the nuclear power plant cooling pond.” Moreover, he named football fans from the 2012 European Cup, to be held in Ukraine and Poland, as a possible target audience for the tours.

The greatest attraction will certainly be, as Mycio put it, that this is “the worst man-made ecological disaster after global warming,” though who that will appeal to remains to be seen. More foreigners will certainly be attracted to Chernobyl, but what will lead them there – whether an interest in ecology, a personal connection, or curiosity – is not clear. When asked how perceptions of Chernobyl might change for Ukrainians with easier access to the “zone,” Alexievich said they probably would not. “One of our philosophers put it like this: ‘In order for people to understand Chernobyl, there must be many Chernobyls,’ she said. “People act now just like they did before Chernobyl. That’s just how we’re wired, unfortunately.”
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