Most offbeat excursion ever? Cruise line plans to take passengers into the power plant at Chernobyl

Oct 5, 2020

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One of the world’s newest cruise lines has revealed plans for what may be the most offbeat cruise ship excursion ever: A trip into the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Florida-based Atlas Ocean Voyages, which is scheduled to debut next year with a single ship, is planning to offer an three-day “Chernobyl experience” excursion in Ukraine that will include a walk into safe areas of the power plant — the site of the worst nuclear accident in history.

It’ll also include a visit to Pripyat, the small abandoned city near the power plant that once housed power plant workers and their families.

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Tourgoers will spend one night within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a 1,000-square-mile area around the power plant that is now a restricted area due to radioactive contamination from the nuclear accident, which occurred in 1986.

The excursion will be offered during a 16-night Black Sea sailing that will include stops in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Russia. The trip will kick off July 28, 2021, on the line’s soon-to-debut, 196-passenger World Navigator.

“This was something unique we wanted to do,” Atlas Ocean Voyages President Alberto Aliberti said Monday during a virtual press event to unveil more details about the line. “They are just starting tourism at a small level.”

Indeed, tourism to the Chernobyl disaster site has begun in recent years on a very limited basis, as I saw during a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in 2019. Small tour companies based in Kiev, Ukraine, about two hours away, are taking small groups of about a dozen tourists at a time into the area for day tours.

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Chernobyl nuclear disaster site
Tourists can get close to the giant Safe Confinement covering that tops the melted-down Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

A handful of visitors also can spend the night in the Chernobyl Exclusive Zone at two small guest houses in the town of Chernobyl, which also is mostly abandoned.

While the area around the power plant complex still is contaminated with radiation, it’s considered safe to visit for short periods. Workers involved in the ongoing decontamination of the reactor that melted down during the accident continue to enter the area regularly, though they only can remain in the area for a limited number of days per year.

The Chernobyl tours that Atlas Ocean Voyages is planning will be unusual in that they will include a visit to an interior area of the nuclear reactor complex. Day tours from Kiev typically only include a stop to view the complex from outside of its main gate.

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Only one of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down during the disaster, and it has since been sealed in a way that does not let new radiation escape.

The tours also will be unusual for their size, give the line’s ships will be able to hold 196 passengers. While that’s considered a very small number of passengers for a cruise ship, it’s still a lot of people to take into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is only sparsely visited.

Chernobyl. (Photo by Francisco Goncalves/Getty Images)
An abandoned amusement park area in Pripyat, Ukraine, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Photo by Francisco Goncalves/Getty Images)

Aliberti said he traveled to Kiev and Chernobyl in 2019 to discuss the visits with authorities. No other cruise line has offered an overnight tour into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

“It wasn’t hard to negotiate the trip in (to the zone),” he said. “What is important was the size of the group. Because we’re a smaller ship, and because we carry fewer guests, we were able to break it up such that our guests will not overwhelm any area.”

The tour came up Monday during a discussion of the unusual excursions that Atlas Ocean Voyages is planning for its itineraries. Billed as a “luxe adventure” line, the brand has been designed to offer not just luxury but adventurous and unusual shore excursions, Atlas Ocean Voyages vice president of sales and trade partnerships Brandon Townsley said during the press event.

The Chernobyl experience will be part of a “max shore” line of unusual, mid-cruise overland adventures that will be a highlight of the brand. Offered on some longer sailings, the excursions will last from three to six days and bring such activities as hot-air ballooning over Turkey’s Pamukkale’s mineral pools and petrified forest; and glamping under the stars at Jordan’s Petra ruins. They’ll be offered at no extra charge to passengers.

The press event was held on the first day of a virtual version of the annual Seatrade Cruise Global convention — the world’s biggest gathering of people involved in the cruise industry. It usually happens in Miami in April and draws about 13,000 people.

Aliberti said the line had approached arranging the Chernobyl tour with sensitivity, given what occurred at the site.

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“You have to keep in mind that it is an area of a recent human tragedy,” he said. “We have to go into it with (an) attitude of respecting what it is.”

Atlas Ocean Voyages announced earlier this year that it would add four more ships to its fleet by the end of 2023.

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Featured image courtesy of Atlas Ocean Voyages

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