Chernobyl – a new tourist attraction?

Radiation sign near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station

Thanks to the recent exposure from the HBO and Sky Atlantic drama, the perception around Ukraine nuclear disaster zone Chernobyl is changing. Where before it was an eerie, desolate region that many felt was best avoided (and to some degree, this is still the case), it is now set to become a popular tourist attraction. And Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is keen to encourage this. However, consumer awareness initiative, Travel Insurance Explained warns that tourists need be aware that they will not be covered for any long-term complications that arise as a result of exposure to the unstable and radioactive environment

In truth, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - an area of approx. 2,600km2 that was evacuated in 1986 (and cordoned off for many years after) after a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant exploded, causing nuclear fallout and radioactive contamination – has seen a rise in visitors since 2013. Alexandro Chalenko, a tour guide for Gamma Travel, told The Independent online newspaper that between 2013 and 2018, the number of yearly visitors to the area had risen from 8,000 to 65,000.

But since the HBO series first aired, the uptake of visitors has increased dramatically. Chalenko noted that visitor numbers were expected to reach as high as 100,000 in 2019.

And in many ways, this change is positive. Indeed, President Zelensky believes that the region should be given new life. "Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine's brand,” he said. “It's time to change it."

However, Travel Insurance Explained has since weighed in on the subject, hoping to caution tourists against putting their health at risk before they are aware of the consequences. Brand Manager Rebecca Kingsley pointed out that although most travel insurance policies offer cover for this trip (the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has given the all-clear to travel to the site), travellers should note that they are no longer covered for any ill-effects they suffer once they return home.

In addition, another spokesperson for Travel Insurance Explained detailed that levels of radioactivity in Pripyat (which is the closest town to the nuclear power plant) can be dangerously high, and advised that travellers visiting this area on a guided tour should be careful to stay within the allocated guide zones and not touch anything found in the area.

“The Ukrainian government recommends that you do not enter any buildings, touch anything, eat anything, and always follow the advice of your guide,” said Travel Insurance Explained. It is also illegal to take any ‘souvenirs’ found in the exclusion zone as they will be ‘highly irradiated and a danger to your health’.

“Once you land back home after the trip, any cover for medical assistance also ends at that point,” said Kingsley. “So, if you become sick after returning from Chernobyl, your travel insurance won’t cover the costs.”

Cautionary words indeed. Travel insurers should take it upon themselves to warn travellers of the troublesome after-effects that a trip such as this can incur, and they should be sure to do so before travellers purchase their policies.