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From Yosemite to Chernobyl: How the Principles of American National Parks Can Apply to Ethical Disaster Tourism

Premise

On April 26th, 1986, the worst nuclear accident in human history occurred at the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine. As a result, people in the area were forcibly evacuated, and to this day, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is virtually devoid of human habitation. Despite this, there has been a steady increase in tourists visiting Chernobyl. This is part of a trend known as disaster tourism. This trend as we will be examining it has its roots primarily in the late 20th century. However, scholars suggest that visiting sites of death and destruction has its root in religious pilgrimages from pre-modern times.[1] Although this trend is meant with a wide degree of controversy, it’s showing no sign of falling out of style. Therefore, I think that we should promote meaningful interpretations and ethics in the scope of disaster tourism.

Chernobyl and Yosemite: Two Origins of Tragedy?

In 1851, Lafayette Bunnell walked through what we now call Yosemite Valley. Being so overtaken by the beauty, he said “I have seen the power and glory of a Supreme Being; the majesty of His handy-work is in that Testimony of the Rocks.”[2] At the moment, his company was attempting to force Indians out of their valley and onto a reservation.[3] While now we can appreciate a doctor in a military company taking some time to appreciate beauty, we must not forget that this appreciation of beauty occurred in the midst of a great injustice. In this respect, Lafayette Bunnell was the first disaster tourist.

Over 150 years later, a journalist by the name of Nicole Shulman visited the Chernobyl disaster site and had this to say about it: “Birdsong rings from all directions. Wild roses burst out through stone; tree trunks absorb iron fences. It was hard to know if what we were looking at was hope or despair.”[4] Though these statements are many years apart, they both were made after a great tragedy occurred. Though the ways in which these tragedies played out was vastly different, they also both represent a sense of hope and beauty. An opportunity if you will, for the land to become something different after humans committed atrocities on it.

It is an understatement to say that Chernobyl and Yosemite National Park do not have a whole lot in common. Yosemite National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful natural area. Chernobyl was home to the worst nuclear accident mankind has ever witnessed. The landscapes are entirely different, and they are not even on the same continent. But that is not where the similarities matter. Places such as Chernobyl and Yosemite represent choices made by humans. Choices that can bring unimaginable beauty or suffering depending on how they play out. Just as Chernobyl could have been a pristine forest without the scar of nuclear fallout, Yosemite Valley could have been a deforested piece of land converted into a series of housing developments. Although we’d like to imagine such a dark fate for Yosemite to be near impossible, if James Mason Hutchings had his way in the Supreme Court, this very well could have happened.[5] In this respect, both Chernobyl and Yosemite as we know them were created by a single decision. Despite their differences, I think that ethical disaster tourism should governed by the same great principles that guide our national parks. The following research will explore examples of disaster tourism, their problems, and provide framework for how disaster tourism could be done with the same sorts of principles we use in national parks. This research will discuss several disaster tourism sites. However, in the scope of historic interpretation wildlife conservation, Chernobyl has the most relevance to these ideals. Therefore, that is where the bulk of the perspectives on disaster tourism will be based on.

Chernobyl as a Nature Reserve

One of the most surprising things about Chernobyl is that it essentially functions as a nature reserve. This is especially puzzling to people who saw the HBO series on Chernobyl and saw the depiction of hundreds of thousands of trees turning red and dying in the path of the fallout leaking out of the reactor. Although many aspects of the series were exaggerated, this was completely true.[6] Yet today, you can travel to Chernobyl and see birds, an abundance of vegetation, and even top predators such as wolves within the boundaries of the exclusion zone. To explain this, we are going to take a step back from history and have a quick lesson on nuclear science. The average amount of radiation people get exposed to annually is around three millisieverts.[7] The occupational limit for exposure to radiation is 50 millisieverts per year.[8] Fuel fragments around Chernobyl were emitting upwards of 200 Sieverts (200,000 millisieverts) per hour. This would almost certainly kill you in less than a minute. Currently, radiation levels around the exclusion zone are far lower. They are generally measured in microsieverts. 1 millisievert is equivalent to 1,000 microsieverts. Most areas in Chernobyl emit less than .5 microsievert per hour.[9] This means that even living in Chernobyl for a year would only put you at 44 millisieverts per year, which is still below the maximum acceptable dose for industrial workers.

There is a degree of debate about how bad this radiation is. Some scientists argue that a dose of more than 50 millisieverts wouldn’t pose a considerable risk to health. Others argue that smaller doses could potentially cause harm. However, while humans have been arguing over what harm this radiation could cause them, wildlife through no choice of their own have survived and thrived in this irradiated environment. Michael Byrne, an ecologist at the University of Missouri mentioned how “Gray wolves have especially flourished in the exclusion zone, with their population density within the zone estimated at up to seven times greater than in surrounding reserves.”[10] I think that this is both a testament to the resilience of wildlife, but also perhaps a warning as to how much harm humans can cause wildlife. Afterall, even after harming a landscape for thousands of years, nature is still essentially just saying “I’ll repair myself in time if you just leave me the hell alone.”

Disaster Tourism vs. Honoring the Past

For better or for worse, Chernobyl now functions as this de facto nature reserve that is slowly gaining popularity as a tourist center. Some people come for a sense of adventure. Others come to see a Soviet city frozen in time. People also come to pay tribute to the workers, known as liquidators, who helped decontaminate the area in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. When it comes to honoring past heroism, sacrifice, and adversity, the United States has plenty of its own examples of that. We honor past wars with sites such as Gettysburg National Battlefield Park so that we can honor those who fought to preserve the union[11]. Even shameful moments in our history have a place in the national parks. For instance, we share these shameful moments as interpretive sites such as Manzanar National Historic Site, a place where Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to during WWII.

What exactly is the difference between disaster tourism and interpretative places honoring the past such as Manzanar or Gettysburg? On the surface, we might say that places like Manzanar and or Gettysburg represent a brighter future, whereas Chernobyl depicts not just the past, but a single point in the past. Perhaps this symbolism holds true to many, but I recognize that natural forces have left the area in a constant state of flux even human creations are frozen in time.

Another factor unique to disaster tourism is the fact that the destinations are often still dangerous. Whereas places such as Gettysburg or Pearl Harbor haven’t seen conflict in many years, there are still places throughout Chernobyl that can kill you, though in all honesty, it would be impossible to get to those places due to security. A sense of danger is not endemic to disaster tourism. Eastern Washington University History Professor Dr. Youngs talked about base jumping in Zion National Park. He described a scenario where “A friend of one of the deceased jumpers has now lost five friends to Base-jumping deaths during the past year, but says that he intends to continue jumping: “It’s a personal choice,” he told a reporter.”[12] Even John Muir sought a unique sense of thrill in the national parks as he climbed precarious cliffs and even a tree during a windstorm.[13]

I think that the desire to take extreme risks for a sense of excitement is normal, or at least common among many people. Even if people are not doing extremely risky things, the idea of danger or just a raw sense of wilderness is appealing to many. Dr.Youngs mentioned this during his travels to Australia when a bus driver welcomed him to a country where “even the butterflies can kill you – and you’ll be dead in ten seconds!”[14] This hype of death isn’t just a joke either. Dr.Youngs mentions later how a boy fell off the porch and into a river while attempting to get his dog and was killed by a crocodile in the park.[15] Death and misfortune are common features in national parks, and though they are amplified in disaster tourism, disaster tourism doesn’t hold a patent on them.

Regarding Chernobyl, I could not find a single example of a tourist dying there. There were hundreds of deaths immediately after the disaster, and thousands of indirect deaths. However, the idea of Chernobyl as this presently dangerous area does not have a whole lot of truth. Frankly, if I went to Zion National Park, went base jumping, got injured, and had to get a few x-rays, I would get more thrill and a higher dose of radiation than I would have at Chernobyl.

Rejecting the Past: Lessons on Historical Interpretation from Disaster Tourism

If anything, instead of a monument to the fallen, or a truly perilous adventure, many people get a sense of peculiarity or even comedy when going to Chernobyl. Despite what you might think, this is often tolerated if not encouraged by locals. Tourists visiting Chernobyl described a guide named Olena joking that “my grandfather made me promise not to go in there until I’d had my children.”[16] Many of the guests were more somber, but according to tourist accounts, the gifts shops near the exclusion zone with their unnecessary radiation suits and even Chernobyl themed ice cream suggest that this somber attitude is not mandatory.

Chernobyl welcomes tourists but it's a morally queasy experience
Chernobyl Gift Shop

Photo Credit: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel/europe/chernobyl-welcomes-tourists-but-it-s-a-morally-queasy-experience-1.3916738

I had a discussion with a friend from Ukraine about this attitude. He told me that “this whimsical attitude is permitted because a lot of Ukrainians don’t see the Soviet Union as part of their shared past. Therefore, mocking something that occurred under Soviet rule is a way of telling the world that this wasn’t something they were a part of.”[17] This quote by tourists in Chernobyl reflects a similar tone among the tour guide.

“So when Olena talked about the regime’s inane attempts to contain the truth even while radioactive clouds were drifting over Europe, she could barely repress her admiration at the sheer anarchic disobedience of gamma radiation, passing unseen through checkpoints and borders, and its genuinely equitable treatment of persons, in contrast with Soviet hypocrisy in such matters.”[18]

I cannot personally judge the people who hold this viewpoint, as I know many had terrible experiences under the Soviet Union. However, I think that being able to say that certain things that happened in your country are not part of your shared history is a precarious notion.

Even when discussing the Confederate States of America, which at least for a time, were separate from the United States, we generally acknowledge that the Civil War and the Confederacy are a part of our nation’s history. Even Germany acknowledges that its Nazi past, even if it was under an entirely different government, is still a German past. In fact, they have the word “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” which essentially translates to “overcoming the past” to describe this phenomenon.

Sadly, this trend of denying a past event as being a part of one’s shared history is a common theme in former Soviet countries and manifests easily in disaster tourism. The House of Terror, which is a Museum in Budapest, Hungary takes a similar approach in their interpretations. This Museum had the misfortune of hosting both the Hungarian Fascist Party during WWII and then the Communist Secret Police during the Soviet era. Sadly, the following quote suggests that this museum is not functioning as a historical interpretation site, but instead as a partisan tool.

“The sleight of hand here — equating Fascism with Communism, and dismissing both as foreign intrusions — is typical of Orbán’s [The Prime Minister of Hungary] rhetoric. It’s also central to the museum’s mission. Its exhibits deliberately avoid making distinctions between perpetrators. They argue that Fascism and Communism both lie outside what Fidesz calls “authentic Hungarian history,” despite the fact that Hungary had its own fascist party and its own Communists. This narrative provides absolution for the worst parts of the twentieth century: since both movements were foreign imports, Hungary bears no responsibility for either the Holocaust or the Gulag. At the same time, it promotes a vision of history in which Hungary is a perennial victim, and Fidesz [Orban’s political party] its long-awaited savior.”[19]

Historical issues such as this should compel us to understand that national parks and interpretive sites are a “mingling of the past and present.” Dr. Youngs mentioned this phenomenon when he mentioned a group of Pueblo people bursting into song at Mesa Verde. He heard a ranger say “in that moment he could sense the presence of those long-ago native Americans who once lived at Mesa Verde.”[20] I think this shows the best side of a mingling of the past and present. However, the phenomenon has a dark side, and I am convinced that interpretations such as the Terror House in Budapest utilize that dark side.

I am not suggesting that disaster tourism inherently makes bad historical interpretations. I also do not believe that a certain sense of light-heartedness or Soviet jokes at Chernobyl automatically equates to a rejection of the past. However, as disaster tourism increases in prominence, so will these issues. Ultimately, I would like to see disaster tourism become a historically important outlet of national park history. Therefore, I think these issues are important to highlight.

How Can Disaster Tourism Be a Meaningful Historical Experience?

The remainder of this research will discuss what we should and perhaps more importantly should not do to promote valid historical interpretation and reflection in disaster tourism. Firstly, I implore anyone partaking in disaster tourism to be aware of their biases and hold a certain sense of empathy when going on these tours. Ask yourself, “would I be ok if someone interpreted my country this way?” Would you be ok if rich Western Europeans toured abandoned buildings in the rust belt and commented on how poor and backwards Americans can be? Would you be ok with people going to bars in Wallace, Idaho unnecessarily dressed in hazmat suits to avoid the lead contamination? It is ok to have a certain sense of humor about these sorts of places. Most locals, political views aside would support this. However, you should at least be aware that people could easily make the same jokes about America, and if the equivalent of joke offends you, it probably offends them as well.

Mission: Revive the Rust Belt: We should subsidize employment, not  joblessness, and target efforts where they are most needed. | City Journal
Midwestern Chernobyl has a ring to it nonetheless.

Photo Credit: https://www.city-journal.org/revive-rust-belt

The second piece of advice I have is to know a bit about the political situation and the history of the place you are visiting. A few summers ago, I visited Bratislava, Slovakia. On the ride into the country, I took the liberty of reading a few articles about the country and of course had a basic knowledge of the country from my background in international affairs. I went on this tour of an abandoned Soviet-era hospital and what I considered surface-level knowledge proved useful. For instance, I saw a sign and told the tour guide “I don’t speak a lick of Slovak, could you tell me what this says?” She smiled and said she was happy that I at least knew that I did not speak Slovak, and not Slovakian like everyone else kept saying. Quick lesson here: Slovak is what you call the language of Slovakia. If you wanted a beer from the country, you would say “I would like a Slovak beer.” You can say “Slovakian beer” and probably still get the same result, but the locals will appreciate it if you use the right word.

Best Slovak and Czech beers, souvenir from my vacation in Slovakia 8-) |  Czech beer, Best beer, Beer
You’ll definitely love “Slovak Beer.”

Photo Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/177399672792233954/

Image preview
Abandoned Soviet Hospital in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Beyond grammar, knowing a bit of history is important. For instance, I asked about how the hospital was abandoned. The tour guide said it was abandoned during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which was a non-violent protest in what was then Czechoslovakia against the communist government. Speaking of Czechoslovakia, the country separated into the Czech Republic and our subject, Slovakia separated into their respective countries in 1992. This is referred to as the Velvet Divorce because it also was generally a peaceful transition. I also studied a bit about the current political situation in Slovakia. For instance, the year after I was there, the country had its largest protest since the fall of the Soviet Union due to two journalists who exposed corruption in the government being assassinated.[21] It proved useful for me to read about the political situation as a lot of the locals were pleasantly surprised that a foreigner took the time to understand their country. I cannot expect everyone to research complex histories and political situations in the country they visit. However, if you visit Slovakia and tour an abandoned hospital, it will at least help that you can order Slovak beer and not tell people that you want to visit Czechoslovakia next.

The last piece of advice I have is to read up on current issues or proposals surrounding the disaster tourism site you are visiting. Perhaps see if there are ways you can contribute. For instance, to many park enthusiasts, Hetch Hetchy is almost considered a form of disaster tourism. The park was once home to a beautiful valley which is said by John Muir to have rivaled Yosemite Valley. Sadly, the valley was dammed in 1937 thus destroying much of the natural beauty it once offered. Dr.Youngs himself took a somber approach to the place saying “I had come here today almost as I might have gone to a concentration camp.”[22] Though he despaired over the loss of the valley, we find out in his interview Jan Van Wagtendonk that there are efforts to restore the valley.[23] Though the damage at Hetch Hetchy has already been done, the idea that there is hope for the valley should raise spirits even as one tours the flooded valley.

The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is also home to ongoing conservation efforts. In 1998, Przewalski’s horses were introduced around the exclusion zone. This species of wild horse was previously almost extinct, but their population has increased in the exclusion zone.[24] Although this certainly does not outweigh the harm done by the radiation, it certainly shows that there is always hope. Ultimately, I think portraying a sense of hope, reflection, and adaptation are the most important elements of meaningful disaster tourism.

I know that for many park enthusiasts, disaster tourism is not going to be their cup of tea. However, I think that all parks and interpretive sites should maintain certain principles and abide by best practices both for the sustainability of the park, and for the good of people around it. Whereas I might not have convinced you to book a ticket to Kyiv and come visit Chernobyl, I hope I have convinced you that disaster tourism can be done ethically, and that the principles of our national parks should be applied towards the ethics of disaster tourism.


[1]Ganna Yankovska & Kevin Hannam, (2013). Dark and toxic tourism in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Current Issues in Tourism. 17. 934. 10.1080/13683500.2013.820260.

[2]Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea: an Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 2.

[3]Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, 2.

[4]Nicola Shulman, “Nuclear Holiday,” The New Criterion, last modified September 2019, accessed December 3, 2020, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2019/9/nuclear-holiday.

[5]Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, 22.

[6]“Why the Red Forest Near Chernobyl Is Still Radioactive Today,”chernobylwel.com, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.chernobylwel.com/blog-detail/125/the-red-forest-the-most-radioactive-outdoor-environment-on-the-planet.

[7]“Radiation Levels Now,” The Chernobyl Gallery, last modified May 20, 2020, accessed December 3, 2020, http://www.chernobylgallery.com/chernobyl-disaster/radiation-levels/.

[8]Kateryna Yuri and Anatoly Zolotkov, “Unit Converter,” Convert Microsievert [ΜSv] to Millisievert [MSv] • Radiation. Absorbed Dose Converter • Radiation and Radiology • Compact Calculator • Online Unit Converters, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.translatorscafe.com/unit-converter/en-US/radiation-absorbed-dose/26-25/microsievert-millisievert/.

[9]“Radiation Levels Now,” The Chernobyl Gallery.

[10]Charles Q. Choi, “Chernobyl’s Radioactive ‘Wildlife Preserve’ Spawns Growing Wolf Population,” LiveScience (Purch, July 1, 2018), last modified July 1, 2018, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.livescience.com/62964-chernobyl-wolves-spreading.html.

[11]Robert E. Manning et al., A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks (New York: George Braziller Publishers, 2016), 10.

[12]Bill Youngs, “Danger in the National Parks,” American Realities with Bill Youngs, last modified October 19, 2014, accessed December 3, 2020, http://www.americanrealities.com/home-page/danger-in-the-national-parks.

[13]Bill Youngs, “Danger in the National Parks”

[14]Bill Youngs, “Danger Down Under (2).” Fireside Talks on Canvas, 2018.

[15]Bill Youngs, “Danger Down Under (2)

[16]Nicola Shulman, “Nuclear Holiday,” The New Criterion, last modified September 2019, accessed December 3, 2020, https://newcriterion.com/issues/2019/9/nuclear-holiday.

[17]Jeremy Gerhardt interview with friend, “Conversation: Why Do You Think People Visit Chernobyl?” Personal, November 30, 2020.

[18]Nicola Shulman, “Nuclear Holiday”

[19]Jacob Mikanowski, “The Frightening Politics Of Hungary’s House Of Terror,” The Awl, last modified March 30, 2012, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.theawl.com/2012/03/the-frightening-politics-of-hungarys-house-of-terror/.

[20]Bill Youngs, “Jerusalem’s ‘Wailing Wall’ — a Mingling of Past and Present.” Fireside Talks on Canvas, November 15, 2016.

[21]“Slovakia Protests: 65,000 Join Bratislava Anti-Government Protests,” BBC News (BBC, March 16, 2018), last modified March 16, 2018, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-43437993.

[22]Bill Youngs, Hetch Hetchy, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2a-uJwUA5AM&feature=emb_logo&ab_channel=BillYoungs.

[23]Bill Youngs, and Jan Van Wagtendonk. “Jan Van Wagtendonk.” Youtube, October 14, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2020.

[24]John Wendle, “Animals Rule Chernobyl Three Decades After Nuclear Disaster,” National Geographic, last modified April 25, 2017, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/04/060418-chernobyl-wildlife-thirty-year-anniversary-science/.

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