Why Chernobyl has suddenly become a hotspot for global tourists

Why Chernobyl has suddenly become a hotspot for global tourists


JUDY WOODRUFF: As we have heard tonight, so
much of the news these days centers on Ukraine. Now we turn to one of the darkest chapters
in that country’s history, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. That came before its independence from the
Soviet Union. Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky in Northern
Ukraine tells us how that darkness is now pierced by an unlikely wave of popularity. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Something strange is happening
in Chernobyl. The site of the world’s worst radiological
catastrophe is coming back to life. It’s not the residents who are returning,
or nature taking over, as you may have heard. It’s tourists, and they’re coming in droves,
thanks in part to an American TV show. STELLAN SKARSGARD, Actor: Get us over that
building, or I will have you shot! JARED HARRIS, Actor: If you fly directly over
that core, I promise you, by tomorrow morning, you will be begging for that bullet. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Tyler Ackley is an American
visiting Chernobyl with his father-in-law, in part thanks to the critically acclaimed
HBO miniseries dramatizing the disaster that came out earlier this year. TYLER ACKLEY, American Tourist: I thought,
as my wife and I were watching the series, oh, great, now it’s going to be a popular
tourist destination before we get a chance to go there. Hopefully, it’s not too crowded or anything
like that. SIMON OSTROVSKY: The series brought not just
the chronology of the disaster into tragic relief. It also exposed the top-heavy Soviet bureaucracy
that tried to hide the scope of the accident from its own people and from the world. STELLAN SKARSGARD: … is that Legasov humiliate
a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated. We can make a deal with the KGB. You will leave this information out in Vienna. They quietly let us fix the remaining reactors. EMILY WATSON, Actress: Deal with the KGB? And I’m naive. SIMON OSTROVSKY: But graphic scenes from the
miniseries, which we won’t show here, have inexplicably failed to deter visitors from
the Exclusion Zone, as the area around Chernobyl, where habitation is forbidden, is known. RUDOLPH FOCKEMA, Tourist: We did some research
to see if it’s — how dangerous it is from the radiation. And we saw that with the tours, it’ll be safe. NICHOLE JENSEN, Tourist: Even though I started
to get, like, a little panicked as it was coming up, researching if it actually is safe
or not. So, yes, still a little scared. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Sergii Mirnyi, founder of
one of several travel agencies bringing people to Chernobyl, told us there’s been a dramatic
increase in interest. SERGII MIRNYI, Co-Founder, Chernobyl Tour:
This miniseries has increased the interest to the Chernobyl zone. We predict that it will be like 30 percent
increase. And so is the effect of the HBO miniseries. We expect 150,000, visitors in the zone in
this year. SIMON OSTROVSKY: One hundred and fifty thousand
people, maybe not much for the Mona Lisa, but the Louvre doesn’t exactly have plutonium-241
on display either. So these are our personal dosimeters. They’re supposed to tell the researchers here
how much every tourist absorbs in terms of radiation during their trip to the Chernobyl
Exclusion Zone. We’re right at the checkpoint right now, and,
from here, it’s to the reactor. Guides do what they can to reassure nervous
visitors about the dose of radiation they will get on a typical day trip to the Exclusion
Zone. WOMAN: Do you know to which materials our
bodies produce radiation? This is potassium 14, contained in our favorite
fruits, bananas and nuts as well. If, one day, you have a chance, and you surround
yourself with 40 bananas, and spend about an hour accompanied by 40 bananas, you will
get the same level of radiation that you will accumulate today, during one day presence
in the Exclusion Zone. SIMON OSTROVSKY: But the reassurances also
come with a warning not to stray from approved routes in case you blunder into a radioactive
hot spot. WOMAN: If you decide one minute to roll on
the grass, on the ground, or hug trees, I don’t know, or bushes, or wild animals, well,
maybe there is a chance of contamination. But if you do not do these stupid things,
everything will be all right. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Underneath this brand-new
shelter behind me is Chernobyl reactor number four, which in 1986 exploded and sent lethal
doses of radioactive material throughout the Exclusion Zone. But, as you can see, it’s actually not that
exclusive. The draw is obvious. Chernobyl is billed as an open air museum
of the Soviet era, uninhabited for 33 years, since Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge, frozen
in time, taken over by nature. MAN: Chernobyl, for me, is kind of — it’s
kind of a mecca of sorts. I’m — back home, I’m a professor of Russian
literature, history, culture. I grew up in the height of the Cold War. I remember climbing under desks when they
did mock bomb — nuclear bomb threats. And so, for me, when I see all this debris
and destruction here, for me, it’s kind of symbolic, too, of the Soviet era. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Do you feel like Chernobyl
might have been the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union? MAN: Absolutely. I think it fell under heavy criticism from
the world for that. And the moment Gorbachev tried to correct
Soviet policies, the moment he tried to open things up, I don’t think he knew what he was
opening up. And I think the aftermath of that burned pretty
hot. SIMON OSTROVSKY: As of September, more than
90,000 people have visited. It’s already well above more than the number
of people who decided to brave Chernobyl in the whole of 2018, according to the Exclusion
Zone Administration. So, this is actually my third trip to Chernobyl,
but my first trip since I watched the HBO show. And I have got to say, it’s a different experience,
because Chernobyl is a disaster that I have lived with my entire life, but I didn’t have
an emotional connection to. And now that I’m here, I’m imagining the drama
that played out here from the scenes in the show. Chernobyl lies now in an independent Ukraine. Then, it was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist
Republic. And for Ukrainians, who are all too familiar
with the consequences of the disaster, the show has served as a fresh reminder of what
life was like under Moscow rule. SERGII MIRNYI: The HBO miniseries has reminded
the many Ukrainians about necessity to have controls of their lives, of their country
closer to their own hands, because it’s a terrible feeling when you are only to rely
on somebody else’s decision who is very, very remote and may or may not care about you at
all. SIMON OSTROVSKY: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m
Simon Ostrovsky in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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