New direct flights from Oslo to Kiev make visiting the Chernobyl disaster site from Norway much easier. Here's what to expect when you’re there.
Disaster tourism and dark tourism have long been small but dedicated niches of the travel industry. Popular examples include Pompeii and the Vesuvius National Park, the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, areas of New Orleans still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Tours to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – the 1,000-square-mile area of northern Ukraine that remains uninhabitable – have been available for a while. Right now, their popularity is skyrocketing. That’s thanks almost exclusively to the recent success of the HBO miniseries.
The Scandinavian connection
Despite being many hundreds of miles away, Scandinavia – in particular Norway and Sweden – has a close relationship with the disaster. That's despite the fact there is no nuclear power in Norway. There are two reasons for the close relationship.
Firstly, it was Swedish nuclear engineers that first discovered the radiation and raised the alarm, facing the Soviet authorities to admit there had been an accident. Secondly, farmers in parts of Norway and Sweden are still dealing with the impact of the radioactive fallout 33 years on.
How to visit Chernobyl
Radiation levels remain far too high for anyone to spend much time at the plant or surrounding area. In fact, scientists estimate that it will not be safe for humans to live in the Exclusion Zone for up to several hundred years.
However, since 2011 the Ukrainian government has allowed organised tours to enter the Exclusion Zone, which includes the workers' town of Pripyat and Chernobyl itself, from which the plant took its name. According to a recent press conference, 60,000 tourists visited the area last year.
Day trips to Chernobyl from Kiev
Day trips taking approximately 12 hours cost in the region of NOK 750-1,500. Trips including an overnight stay are also available, as are customisable private tours. Itineraries vary, but typically, transport is provided from Kiev in an air-conditioned coach. On the way to the Exclusion Zone you'll watch a documentary about the disaster.
Upon arrival most tours focus on the workers' town of Pripyat just a couple of miles from the plant. This is the ‘post-apocalyptic' town you see in most of the photographs of the disaster. ‘Highlights' include the hospital that first received the firefighters, the swimming pool, the abandoned funfair and the palace of culture.
Most tours also approach the plant from safe observation zones, and also call in on the town of Chernobyl, further away from the plant thant Pripyat but also now a ghost town.
What's the experience like? Reuters reported, “The area around the plant retains the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where stray dogs roam and vegetation encroaches into windowless, abandoned buildings strewn with rubble.”
Flights to Chernobyl
At the time of writing, all tours to the Exclusion Zone suitable for international visitors operate from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Right now there are no regular direct flights from Norway to Ukraine, so connecting flights are required. Options from Oslo Airport include Austrian Airlines via Vienna, LOT Polish Airlines via Warsaw, Lufthansa via Munich, and British Airways via London. There is also a budget option with less frequency on Wizz Air via Gdansk.
However, things are about to change! From 26 October, 2019, SAS will launch a new route directly from Oslo to Kiev. A Boeing 737-700 will operate the route three-times weekly.
“In 2018, about 60 per cent flew more passengers between Norway and Ukraine than in the two previous years. This is why we are opening a new route to the beautiful city of Kiev”, said Torbjørn Wist, SAS Finance Director.
Risks of visiting Chernobyl
Guides are highly trained and extremely knowledgable about the “relative” safe areas within the Exclusion Zone. However, all visitors are required to sign a waiver, assuming their own risk for any radiation exposure.
Because of this, it's a good idea to obtain a personal dosimeter – a radiation detector – for your trip. You can buy one or rent one. It will keep you informed on how much radiation you are absorbing at any time, and at the end of the day will show the total dose.
It's also worth knowing a couple of the other rules and regulations that apply to most Chernobyl tours, including:
- All visitors must have their passport to gain entry to the zone, other photo ID is not accepted
- Trousers and a jacket/shirt with long sleeves must be worn
- You are not permitted to place any personal belongings on the ground, or sit on the ground
- Eating and drinking in the open air is not allowed
Because of the restrictions on eating, most tours offer lunch at the Chernobyl Canteen as an optional extra. This is where the people still working in the Zone on the ongoing cleanup operation eat. Food is sourced from far outside the zone.
According to one of the tour guides: “Inside the cafes the radiation background is the same as (and often even lower than) in New York, London or Paris.”