Since the release of HBO mini-series Chernobyl, traveller interest in tours to the destination has skyrocketed, and the GM of a prominent adventure travel company says it won’t wane anytime soon.
The acclaimed mini-series examines the Ukraine nuclear disaster of 1986, and has stirred international interest in visits to the region, with Ukrainian tour operators recording a 40 per cent increase in bookings to Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone since it aired in May.
And it appears larger wholesalers are also experiencing the same boom in Chernobyl tours.
Speaking to Travel Weekly, Explore general manager Joe Ponte said the company, which has been offering tours to the region since 2016, has seen exponential growth in bookings to the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
“It’s boomed for us over the last five years and it’s really peaked since the release of the show … for a short period it was our number-one selling trip,” Ponte said, adding that he had personally taken the trip.
Explore’s Chernobyl tours are currently its most popular, and the recent increase in interest associated with the TV series represents a four-fold increase in bookings on tours visiting the region.
According to Ponte, interest in visits to the site “had not been close” to its top-selling trips before the release of Chernobyl.
Tours visiting Chernobyl have been the company’s fastest selling over the past five years. However, the recent cascade of interest by international travellers in visiting the region represents a 60 per cent increase in bookings for Explore compared to this time last year.
Ponte believes the interest in tours to Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone won’t end up being a “flash in the pan”.
“It’s a growing niche, and it will continue to grow,” he said, adding that he expects other established tour operators to capitalise on the popularity of tours to Chernobyl.
“It’s always the way when a destination is uncovered.”
Last month, Ukraine revealed it intends to turn the area surrounding Chernobyl into an official tourist attraction.
With Ukraine’s recently inaugurated president Volodymyr Zelensky, an entertainer-turned-politician, signing a decree for walking trails in Chernobyl, the country announced its intention to open Chernobyl to the world.
“Chernobyl has been a negative part of Ukraine’s brand,” president Zelensky said at the time. “The time has come to change this.”
Explore currently has three trips visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but these aren’t the wholesaler’s only ‘dark tourist’ attractions. The company also offers tours of Warsaw, Poland and Hiroshima, Japan, among others.
“While the specific events or the destinations will change and evolve, in my 20-year career in the travel industry there has always been an interest in going to places of historical significance … these are significant events that people want to learn about and I don’t think that’s going to change over time,” Ponte said.
But when it comes to the terminology surrounding this kind of experience, there’s one expression that the Explore boss really dislikes.
“I’m not a big fan of that word ‘dark tourism’, because it makes the visit to these places sound, in some way, morbid,” Ponte said.
“We take people there with a sense of respect and learning about what are significant events, whether it be Auschwitz or Hiroshima, whether it be battlefields of World War II, because tragic events took place.
“But we go there with a spirit of learning and understanding and talking to people … so our customers can come away with respect of what people might have been through in those particular areas.”
Although it may not be a problem for Explore, ensuring the right kind of traveller visits destinations associated with death, suffering and tragedy is critical. This is something Chernobyl creator Craig Madzin urged by asking visitors to “comport yourselves with respect” when visiting the region.
Madzin’s comments came after it was revealed tourists were taking inappropriate photos at the site of the nuclear disaster.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone guest code asks visitors to “remember human sufferings and victims, and behave accordingly”.