Chernobyl & Indonesia: The Newest Members of the "Grief Tourism" Club

By Jennifer Welsh | December 17, 2010 11:59 am

ashDo you enjoy looking at burnt villages and/or deserted cities? How about being exposed to radiation?

If that’s your thing, you are in luck with new “grief tourism” vacation packages being offered in Indonesia (site of a horrifying volcano) and the Ukraine (home to Chernobyl). As Scientific American explains:

“Grief tourism,” however ghoulish it might seem, is far from uncommon. Similar trends were seen in Haiti, devastated by a powerful earthquake in January, as well as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The trend isn’t exactly a new one; tourists have been swarming historical disaster sites, like the crumbling Pompei ruins, for decades. Now, tourism groups are encouraging visitors to travel into more recent disaster zones, like the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, where the Mount Merapi volcanic eruptions this fall killed more than 350 people and sent nearly 400,000 to refugee camps.

The eruptions left a wake of destroyed vegetation and villages, and landscapes covered in volcanic ash and stone. Now tourists can visit the area with a guide as a part of the newly offered “volcano tour” package, local travel agent Edwin Hinma explains to Scientific American:

“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,” said Edwin Ismedi Hinma of the local tour agencies association. “Then we’ll take them to a river to watch cold lahar flood past,” he added, referring to volcanic debris flows.

Around Merapi, locals worry about future eruptions of the mighty volcano, and how increased visitor traffic could cause problems if the area needs to be evacuated. As local leader Bejo Wiryanto told Scientific American:

“On Sunday,thousands of people come, they cause major traffic jams. I mean, if something happens, who can guarantee their safety?” said Bejo Wiryanto, head of Harjobinangun village about 5 km (3 miles) from Merapi’s peak. “I wish they could restrain their curiosity and wait until it’s safe. Plus, there are homeless people who are still traumatised by the eruptions who are probably still figuring out how to continue life.”

But others argue that increasing tourism will bring money to the area where many lost their homes and livelihoods. Some locals are already selling snacks to the tourists.

ChernobylThe Ukraine is also jumping on the grief tourism bandwagon: The country plans to open Chernobyl, the most famous nuclear disaster site in history, to tourism in 2011. The 1986 explosion at the nuclear power plant scattered radioactive fallout over a wide area and forced the evacuation of more than 200,000 people. Some travel companies already offer tours of the abandoned cities, but now the Ukraine will allow access to the sealed zone around the Chernobyl reactor.

Guided tours of the area within the containment zone will be kept strictly to areas with low levels of radiation, Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Yershova explains to AP:

“There are things to see there if one follows the official route and doesn’t stray away from the group,” Yershova told The Associated Press. “Though it is a very sad story.”

The lingering risk of radiation exposure in Chernobyl makes some wary of venturing within the containment zone. After all, it has been off-limits for 24 years for a reason, and workers still need to wear protective gear in many places, explains LiveScience:

Areas of the exclusion zone, such as the radioactive-waste disposal sites, the sarcophagus entombing the remains of the damaged reactor, and the Red Forest where much of the radioactive material from the reactor spewed, are still hazards. Radioactive cesium, strontium and plutonium are also still around. Plutonium in particular is expected to linger; it takes thousands of years to decay.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Space Tourists Will Get Their Own Special Space Beer
80beats: Disaster Psychology: Protect the Women—If There’s Time
80beats: Video: New “Disaster Lab” Simulates Hurricanes, Destroys Entire Houses
80beats: Natural Disaster Report: Hurricane Threatens Haiti, Indonesian Volcano Erupts
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: Is Chernobyl Animal Dead Zone or Post-Apocalyptic Eden?
DISCOVER: Disaster! The Most Destructive Volcanic Eruptions in History (gallery)

Image: (1) flickr / coolinsights (2) flickr / Tim Suess

  • dave chamberlin

    Well we already have a long line of disaster movies, and the Discovery Channel (not to be confused with Discover!) along with Fox television is getting more rediculous and sensationalistic every year. I personally never change the channel when a tornado or hurricane is pounding the snot out of people, so I can’t say I entirely disaprove of this reality TV bizzarro stuff. Family guy made a parody of Fox News with a fake TV show called “Fast Carnivores and Slow Children”, it may be a parody now but with the way things are going it won’t be in ten years. We live in absurd times(that is putting it nicely) when there is a disapearing line between human suffering and entertainment.

  • Brian Too

    I don’t agree that this is ghoulish. Or at least, that ghoulishness is not the sole attraction.

    These locations are demonstrations of Nature’s power. As humans we often fall into complacency, thinking that we are in control of our lives and circumstances. As long as Nature isn’t throwing her weight around it’s easy to forget that we exist only so long as Nature permits. Therefore these places are reminders of our frailty and the gift of life.

    Furthermore the events that made them famous are notable in and of themselves. Sometimes the local landscapes are striking and even beautiful.

    Why do people go to the Coliseum in Rome? Sure it was the site of gruesome spectacles. But it’s also a monument to a fallen empire and all that represents. It is furthermore an impressive bit of architecture in it’s own right. I’d go there for many of the same reasons I went to the Aya Sophia in Istanbul. A place which does not have quite the same history.

    Chernobyl is a very interesting case. The local wildlife is making a major comeback despite high radiation levels. This is (most probably) an object lesson in the impact that humanity, by simple occupation, has on wildlife. As such this is a scientific lesson in the various risk factors that the biome faces, and their relative importance to species abundance and diversity. This directly relates to the importance of parks and wildlife preserves.

    Sure science may have known this (or perhaps they didn’t?). However you just cannot beat a living example of such matters, one that any ordinary person can go to and experience for themselves. You want to talk about scientific outreach, this is the real thing.

    And if there’s a patina of the ghoul there too? Well if that gets people to go and take an interest, that’s not such a bad thing.

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