By Maxim Gradov
Entrepreneur Alexander Levitsky now has a newspaper advert reading: ‘A comfortable house on the bank of the Dnieper River, offering a banya and shashlyk’. It’s pretty standard for any newly established homestead but Alexander’s house, in the village of Verkhnie Zhary, is far from ordinary, being the ‘most southern’ rural tourist site in Belarus, just 30km from Chernobyl.
Verkhnie Zhary is located approximately the same distance from Chernobyl as Pripyat — the now deserted town where nuclear workers were based. On finding the ‘Lonely Wolf’ guesthouse on the Internet and locating it on the map, we thought it must be a mistake. Who would choose to holiday there rather than the Braslav Lakes or Lake Naroch? However, on addressing Bragin District Executive Committee, we learnt that ‘Lonely Wolf’ has been successfully welcoming guests for two years now. “We’ve already had about twenty guests, even without placing advertisements,” admits Alexander with satisfaction. “A Gomel family were the first to come, followed by fishermen. Guests from Vitebsk have also been here.”
Asking cautiously about radiation makes Alexander smile. He assures us that any anxiety is needless. Some time ago, local lands became a resettlement zone (showing from 5 to 15 Curie units per square kilometre) and the status was lifted a few years ago, with scientists acknowledging the territory as clean. They even allow fishing and the gathering of berries and mushrooms. “One Russian has bought an abandoned house not far from here, raising a fence and now conducting repairs. He’s not the only householder either. The countryside is wonderful, so the village won’t disappear,” stresses Mr. Levitsky.
The entrepreneur purchased the former primary school building at a symbolic price three years ago. Now, everything has been replaced; only the original walls remain. Alexander has a Russian stove, a sauna and a toilet, with water supplied from his own well. He even has satellite TV and can sleep about ten people at any time. His renovations continue inside and out, all by his own hands.
Alexander lives in Bragin, earning money as a stall holder. He’s invested all his profits over the years in this new business and is modest in his expectations. Speaking of risk, he notes, “I’d rather not guess at how tourism will develop but I know that the house will stand for a long time, passing to my children and grandchildren. My wife and I have long dreamt of living somewhere remote and peaceful — so business is not the main factor driving us.” In fact, Alexander is considering taking in lonely pensioners, as there are many elderly people in Verkhnie Zhary.
Anatoly Kasyanenko, Chairman of the Public Council for Agro-Ecotourism Development at the Gomel Regional Executive Committee and an associate professor at Gomel State University:
Each Chernobyl affected district has guesthouses, with around 11 in the Bragin District alone. They are not abandoned at weekends, as people love to celebrate holidays in the countryside. Rural tourism somehow fills the niche which restaurants and cafes fail to occupy. I think guesthouses have a bright future, as highlighted at a recent international seminar in Khoiniki by Israeli tourism specialists. They consider the Polesie Radiation-Ecological Reserve and the zone of resettlement to be extremely attractive to foreign travellers. So-called ‘disaster tourism’ is gaining popularity worldwide so, with wise promotion, Belarusian Chernobyl territories and their guesthouses could join international routes.