a photo of a tourist taking a picture of a fox in the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Smile, radioactive fox! More visitors have been coming to the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, thanks to the HBO miniseries. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

A (mostly mythical) surge in visitors to the nuclear disaster site raises a question: Can mass tourism spoil a place that’s already famous for being uninhabitable?

Tourism has been accused of ruining many things: Amsterdam, Venice, Iceland, Mount Everest—even nature in its entirety. A viral tweet that emerged this week, however, implicated ill-behaved visitors in spoiling a place that most of us would consider pretty effectively spoiled already.

Tourism, it seems, could now be ruining…Chernobyl.

Since the HBO series re-enacting the 1980s nuclear disaster has aired, media outlets have reported a surge in bookings to visit the burned-out, still-irradiated reactor site and the nearby ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine. Among those who have been drawn to this previously shunned corner of the former Soviet Union are those all-too-familiar scapegoats for contemporary narcissism: Instagram influencers.

Here they come, snapping their glassy-eyed, trout-pouted selfies at the site of yet another human tragedy. So hot is Chernobyl Fever that the HBO series’ creator himself has urged people to approach the area, where 237 people are believed to have died from acute radiation sickness in the disaster’s immediate aftermath (total mortality stats are much disputed), with respect.

There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the ghoulish rise in irradiated misery tourism. You might be relieved, then, to hear that, on closer inspection, it probably isn’t happening.

Look at the figures cited in this Washington Post piece charting the reactor site’s HBO boost. It notes that bookings for a tour company offering trips to Chernobyl rose thirty percent compared to last year in May. But the company had just 11,000 customers in 2018, so this isn’t really much of a spike; it’s more of a pimple.

As for the hordes of selfie-takers, a quick trawl of the Chernobyl hashtag actually reveals pretty modest pickings. Many were not taken near the site at all, and most of those that were suggest their creators took their visits seriously. Of the tweet above citing a siege of influencers, Atlantic writer Taylor Lorenz notes that only one image is from someone with any number of followers, and its accompanying text actually frames her visit respectfully and informatively enough. This shouldn’t be much of surprise. Ukraine is not exactly an international tourist magnet, and the site of the world’s worst atomic accident is always going to draw a fairly select group of enthusiasts. (Even if a day trip there, excursion organizers claim, exposes visitors to less radiation than a one-hour plane flight.)

So what is going on here? Why, hot on the heels of the show, is the idea of tourist feet tramping Chernobyl’s mildly radioactive earth so appalling? Because we’re in the middle of a moral panic concerning tourism and social media.

That panic is not entirely without justification. In addition to speeding the extinction of our species (and many others), the mass-tourism boom is indeed causing unprecedented strain on the resources of a large number of destinations. And the huge popularity of social media is targeting places that make attractive portrait backdrops, sometimes ignoring their historical associations with an obliviousness that is jaw-dropping.

Awareness of this phenomenon has reached such a point, however, that the imagined figure of the selfie-taking tourist puckering in front of some atrocity is becoming a trashcan into which we dump all anxieties about mass tourism. On one level, this is fair enough. People are annoying; people taking photos of themselves yet more so. But by focusing on the behavior of particularly loathsome individuals, we fail to see that the crowd itself is the problem. If tourists didn’t spend all their time eating, pooping, and disrobing where they shouldn’t, this approach suggests, everything would be fine.  

This won’t wash. Proper manners are wonderful, but they aren’t enough to manage any destination’s over-exploitation, and they don’t scrub away any of the other downstream impacts of mass tourism. Making tourism a problem of bad apples is an approach that risks preventing the development of healthier practices, such as legislation that requires large-scale tourist enterprises to pay more of their way and directly improve conditions for the local communities that host them. It’s this focus on individual behavior that, to take an example, allows Amsterdam to revile boorish visitors in an overcrowded city, while simultaneously doing all it can to ensure ever more visitors come. Selfie sticks have become telescopic lightning rods channeling all manner of discontent. Sometimes, perhaps, we need to be looking at the bigger picture.

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