LOS ANGELES — It was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, but three decades later Chernobyl is emerging as one of the planet’s hottest tourism tickets after a new TV series.
For the past few years, a steady stream of adventurous visitors has been drawn to the macabre spectacle of the deserted, decaying city around the power station.
Since the recent launch of HBO series “Chernobyl,” travel interest in the location of the horrific nuclear explosion has surged dramatically, according to local tour operators.
The miniseries, starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, dramatizes the aftermath of the disaster. It was the highest-ranked TV show on film and TV database IMDB as its fifth and final episode aired earlier this month.
Although “Chernobyl” was mainly filmed in Lithuania, its success has seen demand for tours of the area near the infamous Ukrainian site increase by around a third.
Located near the city of Pripyat, around 110 kilometers north of Kiev, Chernobyl is one of the most polluted places in the world and can only be visited with a licensed guide.
Various tour companies offer guided trips into the “exclusion zone,” which covers an area of more than 4,000 square kilometers around the nuclear power plant.
“We have seen a 35% rise in bookings,” Victor Korol, director of SoloEast, said. SoloEast is a tour company which has been offering trips to parts of Chernobyl for two decades.
“Most of the people say they decided to book after seeing this show. It’s almost as though they watch it and then jump on a plane over,” he said.
Korol said the most popular tours are one-day group bookings, which cost around $99 per person.
Much of the area has been open to tourists since 2011, but some sections, such as the “machine cemetery” of Rossokha village, remain off-limits.
However, travelers can visit the abandoned city of Pripyat, as well an observation point around 300 meters away from the New Safe Confinement, a massive steel sarcophagus that covers the remains of the nuclear reactor.
According to Korol, the reactor unit and a Ferris Wheel at Pripyat’s deserted amusement park are the most popular with visitors.
SoloEast has been taking between 100 and 200 visitors to the area on weekend days since “Chernobyl” hit screens.
Although Chernobyl has been declared safe to visit, Korol admits many guests express concerns about radiation levels.
“It’s the most popular question visitors ask,” he said. “But it’s absolutely safe. The government would never allow tourists to come otherwise.
“The radiation they [visitors] are exposed to on a tour is less than on an intercontinental flight.” (If you’re wondering how much radiation that is, we’re talking less than a chest x-ray).
The deadly Chernobyl accident on April 26, 1986, occurred after a routine test at one of the power plant’s reactors went catastrophically wrong.
While the explosion directly caused around 31 deaths, millions of people were exposed to dangerous radiation levels.
Subsequently, 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.
Considered the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident, the Chernobyl clean-up operation is still in progress 33 years later.