Next Christmas in Chernobyl

Nuclear blast zones, floating landfills, volcanic moonscapes, and other must-visit destinations for the disaster tourist.


Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Pripyat, Ukraine

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Pripyat, Ukraine

April marks the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear reactor meltdown in history, at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. If you’re in the mood to celebrate, Ukraine has said that at some point in 2011 it will lift restrictions on tourism in the zone around the nuclear power plant, allowing tourists to legally visit the facility for the first time since the disaster turned the nearby city of Pripyat into a ghost town. Private tour firms based in Kiev, 60 miles south of the Chernobyl site, already take Soviet history buffs on tours of the disaster zone, but the Ukrainian government has previously deemed them illegal and unsafe. Today, however, the level of radiation exposure that visitors receive is about what you would get from a trans-Atlantic flight.  

In addition to the bragging rights that come with visiting the site of the world’s only Level 7 nuclear accident, you’ll be able to enjoy the area’s wildlife — including elk, lynx, and eagle owls, which have not only returned to this post-apocalyptical landscape but have flourished over the past quarter century — and tour abandoned Pripyat, once home to 50,000 residents.

The tours will take place inside the 30-mile exclusion zone set up after the disaster. The area is still heavily contaminated — the sarcophagus that was hastily built after the meltdown to seal off the exploded reactor is cracking and leaks radiation — but government spokeswoman Yulia Yershova told the Guardian that tourism routes had been specifically designed to cover the main attractions while avoiding particularly dangerous areas, and that “There are things to see if one follows the official route and doesn’t stray away from the group.”


Mount Merapi

Yogyakarta, Indonesia

In Indonesia, where tourism is a major industry constituting 5 percent of the country’s GDP, visitors come for the beautiful beaches, unique coral reefs, rich culture, and dramatic landscape — including the islands’ famously unruly volcanoes. When Java’s Mount Merapi erupted this fall, killing over 350 people and displacing another 400,000, the nearby central Javanese city of Yogyakarta lost about 70 percent of its tourist traffic. Two months later, however, local travel agencies are adding Merapi to their itineraries: “In the new volcano tour package, we’ll take customers to explore the closest village to the peak and see how bad the devastation is,” Edwin Ismedi Hinma of the local tour agencies association told Reuters. “Then we’ll take them to a river to watch cold lahar [volcanic mud] flood past.”

The Indonesian Tourism and Culture Ministry is developing plans to encourage eco-tourism around Mount Merapi, hoping to attract international tourists and spur economic growth in the area. One ministry initiative is a volcano sightseeing tour guide training for local youths.


Gruinard Island


Until recently, Gruinard Island, an uninhabited island in the north of Scotland, suffered from a case of bad marketing: It was more commonly known as Anthrax Island. The British government’s World War II bioweapons test site was declared safe to visit 20 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2001’s anthrax scares that the island elicited much interest from visitors, mainly journalists looking for a new angle on the post-9/11 terrorism story.

What’s there to see on this 520-acre island, which was sterilized with 280 tons of formaldehyde after the war? Apparently, not too much. “Lovely fields of bluebells cover the island every spring,” the island’s caretaker told the Associated Press back in 2001. There’s also bird- and rabbit-watching, and apparently conspiracy theorizing: After 9/11, some British tabloids claimed that Scottish terrorists had supplied al Qaeda with scoops of dirt from the island.

Popperfoto/Getty Images 

Donghekou Quake Relief Park

Sichuan, China

The 7.9 magnitude earthquake on May 12, 2008, that left 90,000 people dead or missing struck the heart of Sichuan province, an area of China that had become increasingly popular with tourists thanks to its spicy food, adorable pandas, traditional opera, and dramatic scenery. Within a year, local officials had added the recent catastrophe to the list of attractions, creating a tour allowing visitors to see the ruins left by the quake. Most of the tourism initiatives are aimed at Chinese visitors, with some local governments subsidizing their citizens’ trips to Sichuan. Highlights include a visit to Tangjiahsan, a new lake created by flooding and landslides, and an earthquake-themed museum which has incorporated parts of Beichuan High School, where about 1,000 students were buried in rubble.

You can also visit one of more than half a dozen parks in development commemorating the disaster. At Donghekou Quake Relief Park, the first of them to open, visitors can pay their respects to the missing and purchase earthquake-themed books, photos, and DVDs. According to USA Today, you can also pick up “Holiday Shock” vacation brochures at the Chengdu airport and go on day-trips to the quake zone with the China Youth Travel Service.


Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Pacific Ocean

Cruise ships aren’t visiting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch yet, but it seems like only a matter of time. The conglomeration of trash in the ocean northeast of Hawaii, gathered by currents into a mass twice the size of Texas, is a floating monument to human consumption: a vortex of plastic bags, umbrella handles, footballs, hard hats, and just about everything else.

The disintegrating garbage has a consistency like soup, so the patch isn’t easily spotted nor defined; it was only “discovered” in 1997. But that hasn’t stopped a Netherlands-based architecture company from dreaming up “Recycled Island,” a fully sustainable island with enough space for half a million inhabitants that would also clear out most of the Pacific’s trash — a plan that has yet to leave the concept stage. Among the few who have actually made the pilgrimage are a handful of scientists and the British banking heir David de Rothschild, who sailed to the patch on the Plastiki, a catamaran made from thousands of recycled soda bottles.


Bikini Atoll

Marshall Islands

The United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands back in the 1940s and ’50s, making this remote coral-laden outpost the most unique tourist destination among Pacific paradises. The New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof visited in 1997 and concluded: “Aside from its worldwide fame and relics like a bunker that once had a hot line to the White House, Bikini has the appeal of an untouched island and coral reef, as well as a lagoon offering some of the best scuba diving in the world.”

For divers who like wreck diving, Bikini is El Dorado. There are 19 ships — all casualties of the atomic tests — at the bottom of the lagoon, including the USS Saratoga, the only divable aircraft carrier in the world. Bikini was recently declared a U.N. World Heritage site on account of its exceptional Cold War detritus. According to the official Bikini Atoll website, the island does have higher radiation levels than other spots in the Marshall Islands, but you don’t need to worry about swimming and walking there — the main threat comes from eating any food grown on the island. Avoid the radioactive coconuts.

Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images 

Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant

Bhopal, India

In December 1984, the American-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked a cloud of toxic gas, killing 2,000 people immediately and thousands more in the following years due to the aftereffects. One of India’s deadliest industrial disasters is still mainly unresolved — eight former Union Carbide executives were convicted of negligence only last June, while the site, now under control of the state government, still has 425 tons of hazardous waste sitting around. In December 2009 on the 25th anniversary of the disaster, protesters gathered at the factory, angry about the lack of accountability for the accident’s victims. While the United States later declared the case to be officially closed, victims still seethe about the injustice of an average settlement of just $550.

None of this stopped the Madhya Pradesh government from reopening the gates of the factory, like a dystopian Willy Wonka, last year. The purpose of the reopening was to prove that the site was no longer hazardous — on a visit to the factory a few months earlier, Union Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh picked up a handful of toxic waste lying in the factory and showed it to reporters: “Look, I am holding it in my hand and I am still alive,” he said. But for all the bravado, the state government didn’t seem totally convinced about the site’s safety — visitors were allowed in for only a few days.




Centralia, Pennsylvania, is kind of like that Billy Joel song: Nobody knows just who started the town’s infamous subterranean coal fire, but it has been burning since 1962. The blaze began at a local dump, and went underground when the flames leaped from the trash heap to an exposed coal seam. Firefighters tried to battle the blaze for much of the next two decades, eventually giving up. Centralia became a ghost town, with a population dwindling down from the thousands in the 1980s to less than 10 today. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia’s zip code.

Centralia may be pretty much empty, but it is open to visitors — even if the ground is hot to the touch and occasionally prone to collapse. Two hours north of Gettysburg, it makes a great day trip for coal mining buffs and pyromaniacs. You can check out a now-closed section of Route 61 — which features both effusive local graffiti and a massive fire-induced fissure in the middle of the road — and the old town street grid, which is slowly being reclaimed by nature.  Don’t stay longer than an hour or so: The fires still expel headache-inducing toxic gas. Also, should you need a refreshment after a long day in the smoldering countryside, there is a Yuengling brewery about 30 minutes away. Visit soon, though: Pennsylvania officials are in the process of demolishing the town’s remaining structures.


Suzanne Merkelson is an editorial assistant at Foreign Policy.

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