How a cold, irradiated Siberian city hopes to cash in on meteor tourists

Before last month's meteor strike, Chelyabinsk was best known for a 1957 nuclear waste disaster.  Now officials there are trying to turn the meteor into a tourist attraction.

Andrei Romanov/Reuters
A local resident shows a fragment thought to be part of a meteorite collected in a snow covered field last month outside the city of Chelyabinsk. Regional officials are currently weighing plans to capitalize on their meteor-related fame, including developing a meteor theme park or water park.

When life hands you lemons, according to the proverbial saying, make lemonade.

That message has been received by some residents of Chelyabinsk, an industrial city in the Ural Mountains that's famous for just two things – both of which were horrifying near-miss catastrophes of potentially biblical proportions.

They say the city should start cashing in on its most recent brush with disaster, a huge meteor strike that might easily have obliterated much of western Siberia, as a motif for theme parks and other tourist attractions that could pull the region out of obscurity.

"Space sent us a gift and we need to make use of it," Natalya Gritsay, head of the regional tourism department, told journalists.

"We need our own Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty," she added.

Chelyabinsk's first unwanted claim to fame was a nuclear disaster at the nearby Chelyabinsk-40 atomic reprocessing plant in 1957, in which almost 100 tons of high-level radioactive waste erupted into the atmosphere. That accident was eventually contained and then kept strictly secret by Soviet authorities for over 30 years.

The second was last month's ten-ton meteorite that slammed into the atmosphere and exploded in a series of fireballs almost directly above the city, injuring over 1,200 people but killing no one.

That event was filmed from almost every possible angle by hundreds of CCTV and dashboard cameras, and the videos transmitted around the world almost instantaneously via YouTube and other social media.

It spawned vast amounts of commentary, even some brilliant satire and, of course, plenty of wild conspiracy theories.

But it also, finally, put Chelyabinsk on the map. And many local citizens want it to stay there.

Reached by phone in Chelyabinsk Tuesday, Ms. Gritsay said there was no fully worked-out plan yet. But ideas include developing a tourist zone around Lake Chebarkul, where the biggest meteor fragments came down, along with a diving center where tourists could try their hand at searching the lake bottom for pieces of space rock.

"These ideas need investment," she said. "Right now we have plans organize a festival of fireworks near the lake," to commemorate the event.

Local media have reported scores of other suggestions, including one local official's scheme to build a "Meteor Disneyland," with full special effects so that tourists could relive the experience. Other ideas are a "cosmic water park" near Lake Chebarkul, and a giant, pyramid-shaped flaming monument on the lake's surface to mark the spot where the largest fragment hit.

"It's a good idea; it will help them develop their local brand," says Valery Markin, a regional expert at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow.

"But it's not just about tourism. A big meteor strike is a very rare event, and this one hit at Lake Chebarkul, a traditional recreation zone for the population of Chelyabinsk.... People are already saying that some superior force saved them from total destruction. In earlier times, people might have designated this a 'sacred place,'" he says.

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