Resilient Ukrainian tourism officials know how to find a silver lining in a disaster-induced cloud.
Vincent Rees, who heads Edmonton-based Cobblestone Freeway Tours, which sends people to a number of European countries, including Ukraine, notes that the Ukrainian community of Chernobyl, which became a focus of worldwide attention in 1986 when a nuclear reactor exploded, has now become a fixture on Ukraine’s tourism circuit, with visitors wanting to see the site where authorities evacuated residents on a moment’s notice in the face of what’s considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Rees notes that his company can now safely send people to Chernobyl – with Ukrainian officials having decided several years ago to open it to visitors – on day trips, enabling them to see both eerie abandoned buildings and flourishing nature side by side.
“When you walk along the streets, you see how nature has taken over,” says Rees, who notes horses and other animals can be seen among the greenery.
But on a more poignant note the visitors can hear about the first responders who rushed to the scene, endangering their lives because of exposure to radiation.
Those visitors can also see where the damaged reactor stood, with the facility now encased in concrete to contain radiation, and also visit the likes of a school where dolls and other items can be spotted on the floor after students and other Chernobyl residents were whisked away by authorities while being told they’d be able to return in a matter of days by officials who downplayed the severity of what had happened.
Rees says today’s day visitors will encounter at most tiny amounts of radiation that won’t threaten their health.
Not only can wildlife be found in the area but authorities decided several years ago to allow some former residents to return and live there as well.
And then there are those in the region who are reaching out to tourists by selling the likes of replica gas masks, condoms that reportedly glow in the dark and an ice cream shop that has the international radiation symbol on its chairs and counsels visitors that “Life is Short. Eat Ice Cream.”
But Rees – whose resume includes teaching Ukrainian dancing and folklore – says non-mainstream experiences are only one side to the Eastern European nation, praising, for instance, the architecture in the city of Lviv, home to Neo-Gothic and Ukrainian Baroque structures.
Those visiting Kiev and Lviv – where Cobblestone Freeway Tours has a DMC – will find the likes of opera houses, museums and historical structures, with Rees adding the Soviet Union in some ways acted as a “time capsule” to preserve much of Ukraine’s past.
An estimated 1.5 million Canadians are of Ukrainian descent, with genealogy enthusiasts accounting for almost 90% of Cobblestone Freeway Tours clients when it first started sending people – who can visit villages, meeting locals who they can communicate with through translators – to Ukraine.
But Rees says interest in the country is broadening beyond those who are of Ukrainian ancestry.
Cobblestone Freeway Tours sends clients to other Eastern and Central European countries and the Balkans, with Rees praising Poland, for instance, for having the likes of “amazing castles” and interesting Jewish history, while those travelling with Cobblestone Freeway Tours to Romania can visit the Transylvania castle of ruthless ruler Vlad Tepes, who was also known as Dracula, a name now associated with vampire lore.
Those visiting Croatia can visit the cities of Split and coastal Dubrovnik, famed for its architecture and seaside location. But Rees says they will also see villages that familiarize them with Croatian culture.
Slovenia, Austria and Hungary are other destinations.
“It is our goal to take travellers beyond the bucket list, and create opportunities for them to make meaningful connections through food, music, traditions and sincere interactions,” Rees says.
Not all Cobblestone Freeway Tours’ attention is focused on Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with Ireland among its offerings, a country he made available after requests for it. “I said (to those asking for Ireland) I don’t do tours to Ireland,’ and they said ‘You’ll figure it out.’”
Ireland visitors will see such well-known highlights as the Guinness Brewery and the Giant’s Causeway and again visit villages that will acquaint them with Irish culture.
Rees concedes that business has slowed during the pandemic but his company is still sending people to Europe, and says Christmas can be a great time to be in Eastern European cities. Zagreb has great Christmas markets, as does Lviv, with carollers found on Lviv streets.
Christmas comes in early January for Eastern Europeans, with Rees noting that people can celebrate the holiday on Dec. 25 in this country and then repeat the celebration nearly two weeks later in Eastern Europe.
An upcoming travel agent fam trip based on the company’s Great Ukraine tour departs Oct. 9 for nine days, allows companions, and will showcase what clients would experience on a company tour. It will visit Kyiv, Chernivtsi, the Carpathian Mountains and Lviv and includes excursions and tours, four UNESCO Heritage Sites, some special events and also some down time.
Cobblestone Freeway Tours will tailor tours upon request.
Discover the World is partnering with Cobblestone Freeway Tours to support travel trade sales across Canada. More information can be found at discovertheworld.com.