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Watch: Hit TV series sends tourists flocking to Chernobyl

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April marked the 33rd anniversary of the disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine
April marked the 33rd anniversary of the disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine -
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Reuters
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The success of a television series examining the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl has seen a sharp rise in the number of tourists visiting the site.

One tour agency reported a 40% rise in bookings since the show, made by HBO, began last month. The average price for a tour is $100 (€89) per person.

April marked the 33rd anniversary of the disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine – caused by a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant – which sent clouds of nuclear material across parts of Europe. The TV series depicts the explosion's aftermath, the vast clean-up operation and the subsequent inquiry.

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.

In Prypyat, the ghost town once home to 50,000 people who mainly worked at the plant, an abandoned amusement park houses the rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and a giant Ferris wheel that never went into operation. The wheel had been due to open on May 1, the traditional May Day holiday, and the disaster occurred five days prior, on April 26.

Sergiy Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast tours, told Reuters the company saw a 30% increase in tourists going to the area in May compared with the same month last year. Bookings for June, July and August have risen by approximately 40% since HBO aired the show, he said.

Yaroslav Yemelianenko, director of Chernobyl Tour, said he expected a similar increase of 30-40% because of the show. His company offers a special tour of locations depicted in the series, including the bunker where the initial decision was made by local officials not to evacuate after the explosion.

Day-trippers board buses in the centre of Kyiv and are driven 120km (75 miles) to the area, where they can see monuments to the victims and have lunch in the only restaurant in the town of Chernobyl.

They are then taken to see reactor number four, which since 2016 has been covered by a vast metal dome 108 metres (354 ft) high which envelops the exploded core. The day finishes with a walk around Prypyat.

The disaster and the government's handling of it – the evacuation order came 36 hours after the accident – highlighted the shortcomings of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy.

The accident killed 31 people right away and forced tens of thousands to flee. The final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses is subject to debate, but a Belarusian study estimates the total cancer deaths from the disaster at 115,000, in contrast to the World Health Organisation's estimate of 9,000.

Gareth Burrows, a 39-year-old nurse practitioner on holiday from southern England, said: "It's very surreal being here... just seeing how nature is taking back over the buildings and all the roads, just seeing how everything is falling into pieces."

Thieme Bosman, an 18-year-old student visiting from the Netherlands, worries that the rise in tourist numbers will have a downside.

"If this really becomes a super crowded tourist site, it also takes away the whole experience of being in an isolated place, because there are quite a lot of tourists already here and it does kind of take away the experience of being in a completely abandoned town."

As for any other concerns about visiting the site, he is sanguine. "Radiation is always in the back of your head, but I wanted to see these all so badly that it was a risk I was willing to take. My mom at home is probably not thinking that way."

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