Wednesday,  August 21, 2019  8:00 am

Meet the Canadian tour operator taking travellers to Chernobyl


Meet the Canadian tour operator taking travellers to Chernobyl
Blake Wolfe

Blake Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and editor, who joined PAX after nearly 10 years in Canada’s newspaper industry. In addition to PAX, his work has been featured in publications such as the Metroland Media group of newspapers and the Toronto Sun.

Interest in tours exploring the ruins of Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor have steadily risen since the broadcast of a popular HBO miniseries this past spring, says one Canadian tour operator, with 2020 expected to bring a record number of visitors to the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

However, there’s more to the country beyond the abandoned buildings and overgrowth of the Exclusion Zone.

Vincent Rees of Cobblestone Freeway Tours told PAX that while visitors booking Chernobyl tours are “just a trickle” this year, the popularity of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries this spring has resulted in increased interest in seeing the actual sites, which Rees predicts will translate into a deluge of visitation in 2020.

“It hasn’t dramatically increased bookings yet – it takes a long time to book a permit – but next year there will be a flood,” Rees said.

The Edmonton-based tour operator, which specializes in Eastern European destinations, began offering tours of the site three years ago, when Rees struck up a partnership with local Chernobyl tour operators to include an exploration of the grounds on some of Cobblestone Freeway’s Ukraine itineraries.

Cobblestone Freeway Tours explores the many sides of Ukraine, from the ruins of Chernobyl (left) to the gold domes of Kyiv.

Exploring the site

According to Rees, the typical Chernobyl tour will pick up guests from their hotel in Kyiv and, while en route, guides will explain the history and background of the disaster, in which a reactor explosion at the power plant in April 1986 spread radioactive material across thousands of kilometres. The surrounding area, such as the nearby city of Pripyat, was evacuated in the days following the explosion and lies within what has been deemed the Exclusion Zone, a 30-km area where public access is restricted and habitation is forbidden.

Access to the site requires special permits that travellers need to book well in advance and once past the military checkpoints, tour guides lead groups through Chernobyl’s many abandoned buildings (travellers must be able to walk and wear closed-toes shoes), including a school, sports complex, hospital and an abandoned amusement park in Pripyat – sites where furniture, clothing and children’s toys have remained as they were in 1986.

“It’s absolutely fascinating but emotionally draining,” Rees said of the experience. “You can’t believe this happened and yet you’re there – it’s quite an emotional rollercoaster. The level of destruction unleashed upon our planet is horrible, but the potential of what could have happened had it not been stopped – by the brave individuals who prevented it from going further – is incomprehensible.”

FROZEN IN TIME: The ruins of an amusement park in the nearby city of Pripyat remain as they were in 1986.

Best behaviour

In discussion of tourism to any site known for its grim connection to history, the conduct of guests comes into question, whether it’s the ongoing debate over the ethics of ‘dark tourism’ (in which travellers purposely visit places known for their tragic pasts, be it natural disasters or war atrocities) or the simple matter of when, where or if it’s appropriate to take photos. Just recently, a handful social media influencers travelling to Chernobyl refuelled that issue, after uploading suggestive selfies taken at the site to Instagram.

Rees offers his advice on the matter:

“You’ve got to be respectful and listen to the guides – they’ll tell you very quickly what you’re allowed and not allowed to do,” Rees said.

And due to the unpredictable nature of how and where the radiation spread, guides will also keep travellers safe.

“You can’t just wander off anywhere – you don’t know what’s buried where,” Rees explained. “The radioactive dust fell all over the place; when we went, one of the guides took us over to a tree with a Geiger counter and the meter went up. She didn’t know why that one tree reacted and not another…. The buildings are also in a state of collapse but the guides are there every day and know which buildings are safe enough to explore.

“The main question I receive is ‘is it safe to visit?’ I think the answer is yes; I’ve gone and will be going back this summer.”

Local experiences are a central focus in Cobblestone Freeway Tour's itineraries (photo courtesy of Vincent Rees)

Beyond Chernobyl

However, for Rees, Chernobyl is just one part of Ukraine – and Eastern Europe – that travellers should see.

A member of Edmonton’s Shumka dance company (which performs and teaches traditional Ukrainian dance), Rees launched Cobblestone Freeway in 2011 officially after years of organizing Ukraine tours for Shumka students.

The company, which currently has offices in Edmonton and Ukraine, has recently started working with travel agents offering commissions and incentives, with plans to operate FAMs as well as to open a Toronto office in the coming months.

Rees told PAX that while Ukraine remains the main focus for Cobblestone Freeway, the company branched out to other European destinations (including Croatia, Poland, Hungary and Ireland) when tours to Ukraine were temporarily halted in 2014, due to the flaring of a regional conflict with Russia in the country’s east.

While Rees said that some travellers will visit Ukraine simply to check the country off on their list of must-see destinations, there’s plenty of things to see even after multiple repeat visits; currently, the tour operator offers a number of Ukraine itineraries, ranging from holiday-themed programs for Christmas and Easter centred around the country’s major cities to photography-themed tours traversing the Carpathian Mountains with stops in traditional villages.

Rees added that with Ukrainian culture as the focus of the tours, Cobblestone Freeway offers travellers exclusive access to a number of events on its itineraries, ranging from dinners with local residents to experiencing folk customs such as St. John’s Eve summer solstice celebrations.

“We’ll show them Chernobyl but after that, we’ll show them the rest of Ukraine – there’s so much more to the country than just that,” Rees said.


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