Heavily contrived or an instant classic, whatever your take on the miniseries Chernobyl, the HBO hit appears already to be driving up visits to the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster in then Soviet Ukraine.
BIRN spoke to travellers from the Balkans who have already made the trip, all of them positive about the experience but some of them critical of those who take the tour without much prior knowledge of what went on.
A botched safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986 caused the facility’s fourth reactor to explode, killing 31 people within weeks and forcing tens of thousands to flee. The accident released more radiation into the Earth’s atmosphere than any other man-made event in history; the final toll of those killed by radiation is a matter of debate but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Graffiti in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Photo: Pavel Shumejko.
“I would describe my trip to the zone as a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Pavel Shumejko from North Macedonia. “I learned a lot about the zone and the accident and got to visit a lot of iconic places, starting from abandoned ruined villages, schools and hospitals to the ghost town of Pripyat.”
But he warned off “casual tourists that have no knowledge of the Exclusion Zone or the accident and are looking for a theme park ride.”
“We should respect the sacrifice and bravery of the people who put themselves in danger in order to prevent the disaster from spreading,” he said.
Shumejko, who now lives in Estonia, visited Chernobyl in May with two friends, also from North Macedonia.
He first became interested in Chernobyl through computer games such as STALKER and COD4 and took the tour before the HOB series hit screens.
“Moving through the city of Pripyat, at some points I felt that I was in a forest even though there were 10-15 story buildings on an only few meters away,” he said.
Yugoslav old-timers in Chernobyl
Yugoslav-made Zastava 101 cars in former Pripyat amusement park. Photo: Zastava klub Slovenije.
In May, Reuters reported that Ukrainian agencies that organise visits to Chernobyl had seen a 30-40 per cent increase in tourists in May 2019 compared to the previous May.
According to Forbes, since the show’s debut, Intrepid Travel, the world’s largest adventure travel company, has reported a 131 per cent increase in bookings of its 13-day Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania Explorer trip, which includes a stop in Chernobyl.
Even in the Ukrainian capital, tourists can sign up for a new tour of the “shooting locations of the Chernobyl mini-series in Kyiv.”
Some tourism agencies in the Balkans have reported greater interest in Chernobyl visits.
Boris Pavlic, of the Croatian travel agency Putolovac, is one of them.
“On the annual level, we have about 60 registered travellers [for the Kyiv and Lviv tour]; more than half ask to visit Chernobyl,” he told BIRN. “The HBO series has influenced the growing interest in this trip, for which we are glad, due to the historical importance of the site.”
Bobo Grujicic, owner of the My Travel agency in the coastal city of Rijeka, said he had started offering a special trip focused on the Exclusion Zone.
“I have to admit that HBO made me do this,” he said.
Earlier this year, three members of Zastava club Slovenia visited Chernobyl, each driving an iconic Yugoslav-made Zastava 101.
Unaware of the HBO show, the Zastava enthusiasts set off on April 27 and returned on May 4.
Other than having to push one of the cars across the Ukrainian border due to engine trouble, “our cars served us very well and proved they are not as bad as everyone thinks,” said Damir Horvat.
“There are no dangers, of course, if you listen to the guide, without whom you cannot enter,” he said. Horvat described having to wear long sleeves, long trousers and closed shoes in the exclusion zone, and expressed gratitude to “the people who participated after the accident, who prevented more potential catastrophes.”
Once “more mystical”
Geiger counter, an instrument for measuring radiation. Photo: Mihovil Pirnat.
Mihovil Pirnat, a member of Croatia Infiltration, a group of explorers “focused on abandoned places”, said he first visited Chernobyl in 2009 as a student, and said it had since lost a lot of its appeal.
“There were not so many photos and videos on the Internet; it was all a bit more mystical. I did not know what to expect,” Pirnat said.
“You’ve seen how many influencers go there to take photos just because it’s popular. I have my opinion about it… I believe that in a year [the enthusiasm] will fall.”
“The whole point of going there is to have the experience of being alone in such a town, to think about what happened, in which direction mankind is going,” Pirnat told BIRN.
Fear and excitement
Chernobyl entrance. Photo: Rio Price sa putovanja /Robert Dacesin.
Robert Dacesin, from the Bosnian city of Banja Luka and author of the blog Rio Price Putovanja, visited in 2017 and said the HBO miniseries might be inspire more to make the trip.
Dacesin recalled the village of Zalisa, some 11 kilometres from the reactor that exploded, that today is completely empty. The last resident died in 2015.
“When I saw the reason why I went there, the site of reactor 4, I felt tremendous fear and excitement at the same time,” he said.
Recalling the “Chernobyl rain”
Lenin monument in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Photo: Jelena Djurovic
Serbian journalist Jelena Djurovic visited Chernobyl in May when she attended a conference in Kyiv.
“There was no dilemma – I would go on a one-day excursion into the Zone and record a video for my show about film and TV novelties,” Djurovic said. She described it as “a journalistic assignment like any other.”
The playground and the carousel were particularly touching, Djurovic told BIRN. “I imagined how the children, the first ‘atomic refugees’ in the world, played for the last time in April 1986.”
She recalled how in Belgrade they were warned about “Chernobyl rain” during the May Day holidays that year.
“Chernobyl nuclear damage is a generational thing and it could be said that it united all Europeans,” Djurovic said.
A view from a building in the abandoned city of Pripyat. Photo: Mihovil Pirnat.
“Just as we all know where we were when the terrorists brought down the Twin Towers, we all know what we were doing when the first ‘nuclear rain’ fell – that marked the end of the Soviet Union and announced the end of the twentieth century.”
Fans of the mini-series in Kosovo, however, may have more difficulty getting to Chernobyl.
Ukraine does not recognise the former Serbian province as independent, meaning Kosovars cannot enter the country on Kosovo passports.
Asked if he planned to visit, Arianit Shala, an avid watcher of the HBO hit in Kosovo, replied: “With which passport?”