VR and adventure tourism make a difference for the survivors of Chernobyl

An adventure through the wastelands of Chernobyl can help more than you might think

Ever since the devastating nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in 1986, the plant and the exclusion zone around it have held a dark fascination to many. From film, to TV, to video games, the events of that night (as well as some of the more outlandishly imaginative consequences) have become a byword for horror, as well as a stark reminder of what humanity is capable of.

So why on earth would people want to explore it?

“People want to see something different”. Tanya Bezpalko is a representative from Chernobyl Wel.come, a company encouraging people to visit the site by producing virtual reality tours of the exclusion zone. “It’s a relic of the past. It’s like a different world, and of course, it won’t be around forever.”

Chernobyl Wel.come run both VR and real-life tours of Pripyat and the surrounding, irradiated area  – Ben Finch

The company’s VR machines give potential customers a taste of what they’re likely to see, but the idea is to do so much more.

Running tours from their base in Kiev, Chernobyl Wel.come have taken over 10,000 people to see not only the abandoned town of Pripyat (the source of most people’s images when they think of the disaster), but the plant itself and other surrounding areas.

The abandoned settlements of Kopachi and Zalyssya are also on the list of places you’ll see, as is the Duga radar array, an enormous wall of metal and mesh, once part of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile defence network. All this is done while bouncing through the region in an old UAZ or Lada vehicle of the day.

Chernobyl Wel.come – Shutterstock
Chernobyl Wel.come donate money to charities working in the disaster zone  – Shutterstock

All of which is very well, but I’ve always had a slight feeling that the whole thing feels a little… exploitative? Selling thousands of peoples’ misery as a tourist attraction? Tanya is adamant this isn’t the case.

“A lot of our business is from Ukrainians themselves. They want to see a part of their own history. Plus they get the chance to talk to survivors; the people who were forced to move, people who worked at the plant, at the radar station. Naturally, the state likes it because it brings a lot of money into the area and into the country as a whole as well.”

Chernobyl Wel.come – Ben Finch
Virtual reality is a new frontier for tourism, giving people the ability to visit places they could only have dreamed of – Ben Finch

The other reason that tourism in the affected area is encouraged, is that much of the revenue generated goes to charitable causes. The tour group works with organisations such as the Chernobyl Babushkas, who returned after the evacuation to live in very simple conditions, but in an area they are still proud to call their home.

People who were children in 1986 and have had to live their lives with ill-health, or people who’ve had to battle cancer due to radiation exposure are all helped by donations provided by the company. There’s even a Chernobyl dog treatment programme, and a scheme whereby Tripadvisor reviews are translated into trees being planted throughout the exclusion zone, thereby helping both people and nature cope with the disaster.

So maybe tourism can help after all. As Tanya says, it won’t be around forever. The town will be reclaimed by nature, the radiation will subside, and the last survivors will only exist in records. If carefully controlled tourism is the best way to generate money for important causes helping people cope with one of humankind’s greatest errors, I’m all for it.