Dark Tourism: would you visit a nuclear exclusion zone?

What usually makes an enjoyable holiday? Sun, sea and sand? Good public transport, even? Along with decent places to eat and pleasant accommodation, the average tourist doesn’t expect that much from their vacation.

However, there’s an increasing number of people who do. Interest is growing in visiting sites associated with some of the most tragic events in our history. It’s called ‘dark tourism’, and it’s coming to a travel agents near you.

Defined as “tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy”, dark tourism has been gathering in popularity for some time now, moving from a little-known phenomenon to people taking to TripAdvisor to review their time at Chernobyl.

Despite the rising status of dark tourism, many UK citizens remain hesitant. The results of a survey we carried out, which you can view

below, confirm some apprehension.

 

Our survey results show that 68% of those polled would definitely not take their holiday at a site previously affected by radiation. Be it Chernobyl, Fukushima or Hiroshima, a little over two-thirds wouldn’t consider the possibility.

Interestingly, almost one in four would.

We spoke to a number of experts to get to the bottom of the fascination and find out what drives scores of holidaymakers to visit such locations – as well as how to protect yourself if you choose to visit.

Where does dark tourism come from?

 The interest in dark tourism is no longer reserved to a minute sect of intrepid explorers. It has spread throughout mass media, prompting discussions about morality. Is it mere morbid curiosity or a genuine interest in world history?

Dr. Philip Stone, Executive Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) has written extensively on the subject. He is a leading academic authority and has completed a PhD in Thanatology, presenting at numerous international conferences. He says:

 Tourism is a commercial activity and dark tourism is also very likely to be commercialised – in some shape or form. Of course, there is a fine blurred line between commercialisation and commemoration.

 “It is here that the ethics of dark tourism production and consumption come to the fore.”

Commemoration vs commercialisation: is dark tourism ethical?

Is taking a selfie with a nuclear blast site in the background unethical? Many would think so.

One of the main questions, and one that most likely fuels the hesitation indicated in our survey, is about the safety levels at this kind of site.

 Almost 1 in 4 would consider travelling to the likes of Chernobyl, Hiroshima or Nagasaki – provided they had the information and resources at hand.

Numerous agencies facilitate visits to Chernobyl, and all of them conduct radiation checks upon entry and exit of exclusion zones. There are safety rules to follow and clear guidelines.

Visits are brief, with certain areas prohibited. Guides will often have radiation counters with alerts to warn of the presence of dangerous levels of radiation. It’s important to remember that naturally occurring radiation is all around us, too.

We spoke to Dylan Harris, Managing Director at Lupine Travel, a UK tour company that specialise in unique travel destinations at affordable prices. Their destinations range from North Korea to Lebanon, and have sent hundreds of people a year to Chernobyl.

Around how many people, per year, does Lupine Travel send to Chernobyl?

“We send around 300 people a year to Chernobyl. The numbers used to be higher but they were really affected by the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine in 2014. They have recently started to recover though.

 “In terms of the age range of these groups, we get a wide range of ages visiting Chernobyl but around 50% of the clients are aged from 20-35.”

Generally speaking, what would you say is the fascination with visiting the kinds of locations Lupine Travel offers?

“I guess that most people on our tours are generally fed up of mainstream type holidays and are looking for totally different experiences.

 “However, they all have their own more specific reasons for visiting. With somewhere like Chernobyl, some are keen photographers, some are carrying out research for their studies and others are just curious as to what a nuclear wasteland that has become a time capsule for Soviet Russia looks like”.

 The intrigue is certainly there, and while the majority wouldn’t consider travelling to Chernobyl, the depth of interest from an academic perspective speaks for itself.

More and more people are looking for alternative destinations, and places like Chernobyl are on their radar. But where should those considering this sort of holiday start?

Is dark tourism safe: Radiation levels in Chernobyl

One of the best ways to study radiation is to measure the actual dose of radiation received

and to observe the effect it has on human tissue. It’s measured in sieverts, abbreviated as Sv.

1 sievert represents a very large dose, so the following units are more commonly used:

  • Millisieverts, one thousandth of a sievert and abbreviated as mSv (1000mSv = 1Sv)
  • Microsieverts, one millionth of a sievert and abbreviated as uSv (11,000,000uSv + 1Sv)

For some perspective on these figures, the typical dosage recorded in Chernobyl workers who died within a month was 6,000 millisieverts.

Just one sievert is recognised as a lethal dose, meaning those who were at the scene of the accident experienced enough radioactive exposure to last them a lifetime.

That was just over 31 years ago.

I want to go – but how can I protect myself?

In 2009 radiation levels were recorded again. Levels in Chernobyl and the nearby town of Pripyat varied from 0.3 uSv to 336 uSv. This last figure – the highest discovered – was taken from a test of the metal claw used to clean up the aftermath.

Don’t stray from the beaten track

Considering the brief amount of time visitors actually spend in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, the risks are minimal. It is advised you do not venture into old, undisturbed areas, and steer clear of vegetation, as things such as moss are great at absorbing radiation and will likely emit higher levels than the actual surface itself.

Areas open to the elements pose far less of a risk, while those still enclosed by doors and windows may contain higher levels as the area may have been undisturbed.

Wear a mask as an extra precaution

The option to wear a mask is up to you. Dust is a potential harbinger of higher radiation levels, and given the difficult nature with which radiation is tracked, you might want to opt for this measure.

If you’re interested in reading more about the protective clothing and equipment we supply to healthcare professionals, you can browse our range here.