PSRER: A haven for wildlife

The year of 1986 brought upon Belarus what is most likely the worst disaster ever caused by mankind. The territory of Belarus, with special incidence to the southwestern part of Gomel Oblast where the radioactive fallout was of magnitude not be found elsewhere. The aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster led, among many other consequences, to a total and permanent evacuation of a large territory. The evacuated, and later enclosed, are on the Belarusian side of the border constitutes what probably is the biggest dehumanized area on earth. The total surface of the Polesia State RadioEcological Reserve – PSRER amounts to 215ha, almost the size of Luxembourg.

The option of the then Soviet Socialist Belarusian Republic government was to convert the exclusion zone, later enlarged, into an ecological reserve. This created unique living laboratory from wildlife and the consequences on the exposure to the radioactive isotopes deposed after the explosion on the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

The recent production of the HBO series about the Chernobyl disaster came to highlight the focus on the tragic events of April 26th, 1986. The Ukrainian side of the border has seen an outstanding increase on the tourism flow increasing from 70 thousand visitors in 2018 to around 100 thousand in 2019 – that’s an average of nearly 300 visitors per day. And the outlook for next year is one of an even greater increase. The fact that the “Ukrainian Chernobyl” zone is the “home” of the power plant itself and the deserted city of Pripyat makes a far more interesting destination than its Belarusian counterpart. Especially to the very specific type of “dark tourism” that underlies the “world” of Chernobyl.

It is a fact that the typology and points of interest in both areas makes it impossible to consider that PSRER could either attract or even accommodate as many visitors as the Ukrainian exclusion territory. Being an ecological reserve and, since 2013, an environmental research institution, is obviously not compatible with a mass “traditional” tourism. But, with the scientific surveillance of its technicians, a touristic activity can be developed in its territory. Aside from the mainstream tourism there is surely room to develop a more scientifically oriented tourism – be it for researchers and scientists or for students.

The theme of Chernobyl is, as mentioned before, a “wining touristic brand”. A brand that Belarus could also use. With the abovementioned precautions. The purchase power of western European market requires the “Belarusian Chernobyl” brand to be worked having in sight a set of standards adapted for clients from that geographical area.

From a practical perspective tourism to the PSRER presents a series of infrastructural difficulties:

  1. Hoiniki, the “capital” of the reservation, is located a lengthy 4 hours drive from Minsk airport;
  2. The hosting facilities in the area are scarce, with only 44 beds available at the very modest Hotel Juravinka in Hoiniki;
  3. Restaurants are also ill prepared for a steady, even if smooth, influx of tourists.

The lack of infrastructures can be circumvented by basing the visits in Gomel, much better equipped and only 1h30 away from PSRER. Due to the distance from Minsk, the perspective of performing a return trip and visit on the same day from the capital presents itself as anything but an optimal solution. This will make such a visit overdemanding in question of time and will gravely increase its costs.

A less costly possibility could be using the mass of visitor to Chernobyl as a poll from where to draw visitors into PSRER. The city of Pripyat is located a mere 50 minutes’ drive from, from example, Kamaryn. This distance is further lessened when considering the Ukrainian city of Slavutych – with the unique advantage on the existence of two railway connection on Saturdays. The creation of a visa-free zone for the PSRER could present a solution for using this already existent pool of tourists. Visits to PSRER required a previously obtained authorisation, which is in line with the required invitation for the Brest/Grodno visa-free zone. Furthermore, as the visits to the PSRER are conducted solely by the reservation personnel this allows to implement a strict control of border crossing as well as reduce the costs therefore rendering PSRER as a more interesting touristic product.

For sure such a solution presents itself a lot easier to implement some degree of cooperation between authorities and tour operators from both sides of the border. But this can be considered an easy to surpass question due to the good relation between the two neighbouring countries. But it is not impossible to unilaterally initiate such a project.

Chernobyl is the alternative tourism destination of the moment. The usage of the Chernobyl brand associated to Belarus will have, inevitably, the consequence of also promoting Belarus tourism as a whole. The knowledge acquired by Belarus in the abovementioned visa-free zone of Brest/Grodno combined with the experience of Belarus incoming tourism will surely allow a swift implementation of such an endeavour.

Besides the positive results related to the increase of tourism to Belarus, both economic and in terms of projection, the inclusion of the PSRER in the Chernobyl brand will allow to look beyond the disaster scene that mobilized innumerable tourists into the Ukrainian side promoting a better understanding of the accident and of its aftermath.