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Tourism at Chernobyl

Tourism at Chernobyl

Andrew Taylor discusses tourism at Chernobyl and its repercussions
70 years ago, on August 6th 1945, the USA dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another on Nagasaki, just days later on August 9th. This attack was to become the last major act of World War II, killing over 120,000 people at first impact and over 100,000 more who later died from radiation poisoning. This kind of devastation has been surpassed by few events, however, in April 1986, one of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl power station exploded, releasing at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This site is now a tourist attraction.
However, there is an argument that this tragic heritage site created multiple, structured narratives and can be used as a standard for renewed social understanding, education and environmental awareness as they are undoubtedly a vital part of human history, having the potential to shape international identity. With this comes the obvious need to strike a balance between remembering the event as a single macabre narrative and recognising the site as a unique and fertile source that is now valuable for other reasons.

Sites associated with death and disaster such as Chernobyl represent a recognisable chunk of the heritage tourist industry, otherwise known as dark tourism. Research suggests that Chernobyl attracts different visitors during different periods of the year; dark tourism is particularly prevalent in autumn and winter, whereas scientists from all over the world explore the area in spring and summer.

Since the mass evacuation of all the area’s inhabitants leading to the abandonment of family lives, a plethora of wildlife has exploited the absence of humans and made the contaminated exclusion zone their home. Land that was once cultivated into wheat fields has now been flooded due to beavers; needless to say, in the absence of human intervention, animals themselves have their part to play in dramatically changing the landscape. Indeed, Chernobyl is a unique example of unmediated regeneration. Increased tourist presence will no doubt fund developments of the area as a whole. One idea to further enhance Chernobyl’s narrative could be nominating the area to become a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is certainly universally significant, the destructive effects of the disaster have affected countries such as Finland and Denmark as well as the UK; Gillian Clarke’s, ‘Neighbours’, suggests that the disaster made all of Europe become true neighbours, the indiscriminate potential of contamination has been said to have democratised Europe. Needless to say, the disaster has had far reaching, long lasting effects that feed into Europe’s sense of companionship and shared experiences.

However, though there is an opportunity of extending Chernobyl’s appeal, there is a danger of turning places of pain into objects of capitalism and entertainment.  For a site of such extraordinary and unique natural qualities, tourism can not only trivialise the very harsh history of the site but can have extremely adverse effects such as erosion, pollution and disturbance to the animals that have thrived for so long without human interaction. A useful example to bear in mind would be the Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii. This was established by the US National Park service in 1980 expanding on the site of the Leper settlement. Its status as a National Park aims to preserve the cultural and physical context in which the island is situated. The management of the site is defined by the particular park boundaries the resident patients are managed by the federal health service and the surrounding flora and fauna is managed by the environmental services, this facilitates long term preservation and interpretive management. The federal intervention has certainly aided on and off site narratives to be nurtured and expressed and the place can provide an avenue for education and contemplation for the permitted visitors. Making the area a nature trail, reserve or heritage site however, would be at odds with what Chernobyl has become. The present levels of radiation would ensure strict boundaries; walkways and maps would have to be adhered to and to have an experience dictated by these objects simply means the visitor would never get the true idea of both the devastation and the wilderness that Chernobyl has become.

As well as being a symbol for a nuclear-free world, the exclusion zone is more importantly, arguably a symbol of a functioning ecosystem without human intervention and nature’s resilience and dynamism. Environmentally speaking, as long as Chernobyl remains unmanaged, it is one of the only examples of true wilderness left on earth. A change in status and increased tourist presence will surely fund other developments, however, any designations would enforce change, thus changing its unmanaged state.

Chernobyl has the potential to create a multi-layered narrative, akin to other dark tourist sites such as Pompeii, Auschwitz and Antietam, that builds upon collective memory and identity. However, it could also build upon our understanding of nuclear aftermath, and the resilience of nature, which would be far more numerous than if we left it to become another dark tourism destination. Furthermore, it could be argued that the same level of uniqueness and enrichment that can be shared by management and protection can be gained through objective observation at arm’s length. Although visitors would gain an inspiring insight into the aftermath of nuclear disasters, the power of dark tourism sites and nature, these lessons will be much more enlightening and fruitful if the exclusion zone was kept intact, as this is an entirely unique site. Natural history is a hugely valuable resource; it has innumerable benefits, not only to wildlife conservation, but to society, environmental change and public health. One way to ensure the site lives up to its potential as a research site, is for researchers to be invited to Chernobyl and make their information easily accessible.

This represents very relevant theoretical and practical purposes in the heritage industry. What purpose an institution best serves is an enduring matter and heritage organisations are constantly faced with issues of how accessible their information is. Are some things best left in situ and unmediated or do tourists have a fundamental right to get the richest and fullest experience out of these sites as possible, albeit at the expense of preservation? As accommodating as many designations such as UNESCO may provide, it could be argued that as much as Chernobyl requires being a Natural or even Cultural World Heritage Site, there are no concrete ways in which it meets their criteria. One of the prevailing messages is how difficult it can be for sites, particularly dark tourism locations to serve different purposes, whilst acknowledging how its potential as a research site.

This post was written by Andrew Taylor, an NTU Masters student in Museum and Heritage Management and a Culture Syndicates Heritage Assistant.
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