Ukraine's Chernobyl might be on track to become 2019's surprise tourism destination, after a widely discussed HBO miniseries resulted in a surge in bookings for trips to the site and the nearby town that were abandoned after the major nuclear accident in 1986.
Trip bookings for May of 2019 were 30 per cent higher than May of 2018, and were up over the next three months, said Sergii Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast Travel that organises trips to the nuclear power plant and its surrounding areas.
Another tour company, Chernobylwel.com, confirmed that its numbers also had increased.
On their tours, visitors usually head to the abandoned town of Pripyat next to the power plant, which was evacuated within hours, and other sites, including the former power plant itself.
Radiation levels during the trips are considered to be safe, but the area around the power plant remains largely uninhabited until today.
HBO's Chernobyl — a mix of real events and fictional accounts — which is shown on Sky's SoHo channel, immediately hit a nerve.
The silence at the time from Soviet officials who were unwilling to acknowledge that the catastrophe had happened reminded some of the wavering trust they have in their own politicians to tell them the truth.
The destructive power of nuclear energy triggered memories of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and the nuclear threats exchanged between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un not too long ago.
Interest in the series itself echoes some of the big political debates of our time: truth versus lies, Russia versus the West, and the realisation that disasters can easily transcend borders.
The interest in the Chernobyl site is likely to feed into another debate: How should we commemorate a human-made disaster of the scale of Chernobyl without turning the place that exposed hundreds of thousands to radiation into an adventure theme park?
At least one company is already advertising an HBO-themed trip for US$185 per person, "revealing to the secrets and real stories of the events that occurred," as the company writes. Among the tour highlights are riding "in an armoured patrol vehicle, in which the liquidators in 1986 made a radiation reconnaissance"and trying "a real lunch of power plant employees in the canteen of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant".
The question how to commemorate the disaster while offering trips to it remains contentious among tour operators themselves.
SoloEast Travel director Ivanchuk said that he was struggling to comprehend why some of his competitors were selling "fridge magnets, radioactive ice cream and canned air" near the site.
"It is disgusting and humiliating to those people who still work in Chernobyl or who come to visit their abandoned houses," Ivanchuk wrote to the Washington Post. "The 20th Century is full of 'Dark' events and suffering, and just like Auschwitz or Hiroshima, Chernobyl is one of them."
Ivanchuk said that his company kept only about 15 to 18 per cent of the trip revenue, handing over the vast majority to Ukrainian authorities.
By 2016, Ivanchuk's company was taking 7500 tourists to the site annually, he said at the time. Last year, the company had 11,000 customers.
"It used to be sort of extreme travel," Ivanchuk said in 2017. "You were very brave to go to Chernobyl in 2000. Now, not so much."