Decades after nuclear disaster, tourism is booming in Chernobyl

CHICAGO TRIBUNE:

We climbed 16 flights of slippery, icy stairs in an abandoned apartment building — the iron railings long ago pilfered, balcony doors stuck open — until we reached the roof and peered over the ghost town of Pripyat, the once-hailed Soviet “futuristic city” where Chernobyl nuclear plant workers and their families lived.

Thirty-three years after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, Pripyat’s broad boulevards are crowded with tangles of overgrown trees. Its once gleaming buildings are dark and brooding — windows gone, interiors looted, hallways littered with crumbling books.

It was twilight, and from our rooftop perch, the only light we could see came from the silver dome encasing the Chernobyl reactor, lit up as if it were still on fire. Someone in our group blasted music from an iPhone, and suddenly a dozen Americans broke out dancing. We were among the only humans in this deserted city.

“What else do you do at the end of the world?” someone yelled.

Welcome to the apocalypse vacation: a weekend in Chernobyl.

Ever since the Ukrainian government opened Chernobyl to tourists in 2011, the number of annual visitors continues to climb. Last year, the government reported nearly 72,000 visitors, up from 50,000 the year before.

“Travel to Ukraine has become cheap,” said Sergii Ivanchuk, owner of SoloEast, a company that last year shuttled nearly 12,000 tourists to the site of the infamous nuclear disaster.

“We don’t have Crimea anymore, and less and less people are interested in religion and churches,’’ he added. “But we have cheap beer and Chernobyl!”

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