Ukraine announces 'green corridor' to streamline tourism to Chernobyl

Alec Luhn
Tourists take a selfie in the ghost town of Pripyat, which has seen visitor numbers skyrocket after the HBO series about the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant there - Bloomberg

Ukraine's president has decreed a “green corridor” to ease tourism to Chernobyl after interest skyrocketed on the back of the popular HBO show about the disaster.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ordered new tourist routes and checkpoints be established to improve access, reduce corruption and make the area around the former nuclear power plant, which suffered a catastrophic meltdown in 1986, a “tourist magnet”. 

Visits are reportedly up 40 per cent since HBO's Chernobyl miniseries in May, sparking new controversy over “dark tourism” to the site of a tragedy that killed 54 people in the immediate aftermath and harmed thousands of others.

After some Instagram influencers began posting scantily clad pictures of themselves in Pripyat, the show's screenwriter called on tourists to “comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed”. 

But in his decree, Mr Zelenskiy has appeared to come down on the side of Instagram users, abolishing a ban on shooting video in some places and promising that mobile phone signal would be improved.

While companies have been taking tourists on brief trips to the ghost town of Pripyat in the contaminated “exclusion zone” for years, visiting has involved logistical challenges and red tape.

These have been exploited to turn Chernobyl into a “symbol of corruption,” according Mr Zelenskiy, a former comedian who was elected president in April promising to crack down on crooked officials. 

Speaking at the official unveiling on Wednesday of a massive new confinement structure built over the ill-fated reactor, he said streamlining regulations would help stop bribe-taking to visit or collect scrap metal or timber around Chernobyl.

“Let's finally stop scaring off tourists and turn the exclusion zone into a scientific and upcoming tourist magnet,” Mr Zelenskiy said. “Let's make it a land of freedom that will become one of the symbols of a new Ukraine. Without corruption. Without unnecessary prohibitions.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, foreground, visits the 'new safe confinement' shelter over the remains of Chernobyl's reactor number four Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Besides creating new tourist routes like one via local rivers, the decree also mandated that authorities take action on requests to visit within three days, responding online.

In addition, the European Union and Nato will be invited to organise nuclear safety trainings at Chernobyl, which will be promoted to scientists and tourists as “a unique place on the planet where nature revives after a global man-made disaster,” Mr Zelenskiy said. 

The new 40,000-tonne confinement shell, largest moveable land-based structure ever, was built over nine years with 2.2 billion euros from the European Union, Ukraine and other countries. 

Meanwhile, Mr Zelenskiy spoke with Vladimir Putin by phone for the first time on Thursday, discussing the possibility of new talks over the simmering conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Shortly before receiving the call from Mr Zelenskiy, Mr Putin had said he wasn't opposed to the  Ukrainian president's suggestion to restart talks and include the UK and United States.