By Max Hunder
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine (Reuters) - The success of a U.S. television miniseries examining the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl has driven up the number of tourists wanting to see the plant and the ghostly abandoned town that neighbours it for themselves.
One Chernobyl tour agency reported a 40% rise in trip bookings since the series, made by HBO, began in May and which has attracted outstanding reviews.
English-language tours usually cost around $100 per person.
Last April marked the 33rd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine, caused by a botched safety test in the fourth reactor of the atomic plant that sent clouds of nuclear material across much of Europe.
The HBO miniseries 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 Pripyat, the ghost town once home to 50,000 people who mainly worked at the plant, an amusement park houses a rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and dodgem-car track, and a giant Ferris wheel that never went into operation. The wheel was to open on May 1 — the traditional May Day holiday.
Sergiy Ivanchuk, director of SoloEast tours, told Reuters the company saw a 30% increase in tourists going to the area in May 2019 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 by local officials not to evacuate after the explosion was made.
Day-trippers board buses in the centre of Kiev and are driven 120km (75 miles) to the area, where they can see monuments to the victims and abandoned villages and have lunch in the only restaurant in the town of Chernobyl.
They are then taken to see reactor number four, which since 2017 has been covered by a vast metal dome 105 metres (344 ft) high which envelops the exploded core. The day finishes with a walk around Pripyat.
"Many people come here, they ask a lot of questions about the TV show, about all the events. People are getting more and more curious," said tour guide Viktoria Brozhko, who insists the area is safe for visitors.
"During the entire visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, you get around two microsieverts, which is equal to the amount of radiation you'd get staying at home for 24 hours"," she said.
When Craig Mazin, the creator of the 'Chernobyl' miniseries, came to visit before writing the show, he said of his experience: "I'm not a religious man, but that's as religious as I'll ever feel".
"To walk where they walked felt so strange, and also being under that same piece of sky you start to feel a little closer, in a sense, to who they were," he told an HBO podcast.
The disaster and the government's handling of it — the evacuation order only 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 right away and forced tens of thousands to flee. The final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses such as cancer is subject to debate.
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.
"You can't really come to Kiev and not take the opportunity to see this unique place," said Gareth Burrows, a 39-year-old nurse practitioner from southern England.
"We only ended up watching the show because we were already coming, but I think you will see an increase in tourism because of the show, it will definitely spark interest."
Thieme Bosman, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands, worries that the bump in tourist numbers will have a downside.
"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, so I think if more and more tourists come here that will ruin the experience," he said.
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Alexandra Hudson)