Nuclear power is in vogue. Not only have soaring energy prices and rising energy demand put atomic power on the public agenda, but it seems they have boosted the curiosity of tourists, as well.The cooling towers of the Czech Republic’s two nuclear power plants, both operated by the state-owned power giant ČEZ, are successfully wooing visitors who may be more typically accustomed to the spires of Gothic cathedrals, castles, spas and other traditional sights.
In 2007, ČEZ’s nuclear power plant in Temelín, south Bohemia, which has been a source of safety concerns for neighboring — and anti-nuclear —Austria, pulled in a record number of visitors. “Last year 26,875 people visited the information center at the Temelín nuclear plant,” said Marek Sviták, the plant’s spokesman. The information center even hosted a wedding ceremony there last summer, he added.Temelín’s visitor numbers are 10 percent higher than 2006 and the highest since its visitor’s center opened in 1991, Sviták added. The nuclear plant itself, which is open to school excursions, experts from the energy sector and VIP guests, was host to 5,000 of such visitors, ČEZ said.ČEZ’s other, older plant, in Dukovany, south Moravia, was not far from hitting a record of its own. Dukovany, which like Temelín is located near the Austrian border, welcomed almost 29,000 visitors, its largest crowd in the past six years.
Measured by tourist volume, both plants are more popular as tourist attractions than most regional city museums or the former imperial castle in Zákupy, north Bohemia, for example. The large majority of tourists continues to be Czechs, with foreign guests making up less than 10 percent of all visitors. Temelín, reviled by most Austrians, nevertheless drew a spate of curious doubters from across the border, with one-quarter of its foreign visitors coming from Austria.Many of these visitors come from high schools like the Higher Technical Institute in Hollabrunn, an Austrian town some 20 kilometers from the Czech border. The school has repeatedly brought its students to Temelín and Dukovany. “The trips to nuclear power plants are popular, because [the plants] are fiercely debated and there are a lot of different opinions about them,” said Reinhard Forster, a teacher at Hollabrunn. Visits to the plants give his students a chance to form their own opinions on nuclear energy, he added.ČEZ’s nuclear tourism is ahead of the rest of the country’s industrial sites and has been embraced by local tourism.
“It’s a modern trend for large companies in advanced countries to promote their production sites,” said Tomio Okamura of the Association of Czech Tour Operators and Travel Agencies (AČCKA).
By luring tourists to its nuclear plants, ČEZ is pursuing a smart public relations strategy, promoting the company while mitigating the fears of Austrians, Okamura said.On the other hand, Jihočeské matky, a Czech anti-nuclear organization, has pointed out what it sees as the detrimental effects Temelín has on tourism.“For some people, Temelín might be an attractive tourist destination because it is a hotly discussed object, something mysterious and dangerous,” said Jaroslava Brožová of Jihočeské matky.“Overall, however, the plant has ruined the landscape and tourist potential in the area,” she said, adding that the ČEZ station harms local farmers, who are having a hard time selling their products.
According to Sviták, Temelín’s record tourist season is a result of promotional campaigns that started three years ago, made in cooperation with the Tourist Authority of South Bohemia, which agreed to promote the plant at 13 of its tourist information centers throughout the region.Beyond that campaign, Temelín’s traffic has been spurred by the heightened interest in nuclear energy sweeping the whole of Europe, Sviták said.ČEZ plans to continue developing its tourist program, opening for the first time in January a separate exhibition stand at a travel trade fair in Brno, south Moravia, to promote tourism around the Dukovany plant. At the same fair, Temelín was represented at the South Bohemia stand. In addition to nuclear plants, both stalls wooed people to the company’s 11 coal-fired power plants and six hydroelectric plants.
Although AČCKA’s Okamura considers industrial tourism a marginal segment of the country’s tourist offerings, he would like to see more industrial sites opened to the public. For example, the open-pit mines in north Bohemia could be easily turned into tourist attractions, putting the region on the tourism map. “I myself would like to climb into the huge excavators used in north Bohemian mines,” he said.Like tourism in the Czech Republic in general, industrial tourism has been dampened by the underdeveloped tourist infrastructure that exists virtually everywhere outside Prague, Okamura added.
The advantage nuclear plants have over their industrial neighbors is that they can be exploited for educational tours and are thus attractive for schools. Students are the most frequent visitors to the plants and without their excursions, the visitor rate at both Temelín and Dukovany would wither by more than a half.
The travel operators organizing trips to Temelín are well aware of their target market.“We focus on tours for Czech school groups,” said Petr Havel, head of the travel agency Pangea, which brought some 350 students to Temelín last year.Although the Temelín plant recorded a 25 percent increase in individual visitors in 2007, Havel doesn’t consider the time ripe for expanding his tour packages to other customers. “For the time being,” he said, “I’ll continue to target my traditional customers — Czech schools.”