Chernobyl disaster zone lures tourists as visitor numbers boom

Camera? Check. Sunglasses? Check. And a Geiger counter? Check.

For a growing number of thrill-seekers visiting Chernobyl's radiation-contaminated areas, the device is used to help navigate the site of what remains the world's worst nuclear accident.

The uninhabited exclusion zone, a 30km radius around the former nuclear power station, has seen a surge in tourists in the past few years.

Almost 50,000 people toured the area last year - a 35 per cent rise on 2016 - to see the plant that contaminated a large swathe of Europe when its fourth reactor exploded on April 26, 1986. About 70 per cent of visitors were foreigners.

"(I wanted to) see something totally different," said Ms Maja Bandic, a Croatian in her 50s, who described the day as "amazing".

It is even possible to stay a few nights in a basic hotel or one of two hostels near the power station.

Mr Viktor Kharchenko, whose travel agency has run tours to the site since 2012, said the growth in numbers came after the 30th anniversary of the disaster in 2016 and the installation that year of a huge metal dome over the damaged reactor that significantly reduced radiation leaks.

These developments were widely covered by international media and alleviated people's fears over whether it was safe to visit Chernobyl, Mr Kharchenko said, arguing that the risk to tourists is minimal.

He said: "A day's stay in the area equals two hours of flying over the Atlantic Ocean in terms of dose of radiation absorbed."

But one tour group member, Mr Joel Alvaretto, a 28-year-old student from Argentina, confessed that he was "a little afraid" of radiation, since he has heard "you can see the effects later, many years after".

Leaving Chernobyl, everyone has to go through radiation checks - inside a large dosimeter which indicates if they are "clean".

Several Ukrainian travel agencies offer tours from one to seven days, priced from €25 ($40) to €650. The activities include feeding gigantic catfish in the radioactive waters and driving past the "red forest" where pine needles have turned to red due to radiation.

The highlight of the trip is a visit to Pripyat, the ghost town built for nuclear workers. The nearly 50,000 residents were evacuated the day after the disaster, never to return home.

Mr Adam Ridemar, a Swedish student who came with his father to see this "iconic place",was surprised at the luxuriant vegetation, saying he had expected a "concrete jungle".

Nature is reclaiming this abandoned land with tarmacked roads gradually choked by wild grass and apartment blocks disappearing behind green foliage - a sight that fascinates visitors.

"It proves that nature is stronger than humans after all," Ms Bandic said.

People "have sun, wind, they don't need nuclear energy: it is so dangerous," she added. - AFP