MOSCOW – The last time a disaster with global impact struck Chelyabinsk, officials covered it up for three decades. This time, theyre marketing it to the world.
The meteor explosion over this former secret Soviet nuclear hub two weeks ago was recorded by scores of dashboard cameras and viewed by millions of people, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attract international tourists and their money to the Russian province on the Asian edge of the Ural Mountains.
Space sent us a gift, and we need to make use of it, Natalia Gritsay, head of the regions tourism department, said in an interview en route to Lake Chebarkul, where some of the biggest meteorites have been found and where officials gathered last week to map a new strategy for economic development. We need our own Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.
The meteor was about 17 meters across and weighed more than 10,000 tons when it hit the atmosphere and exploded with the force of about 33 Hiroshima atomic bombs, according to NASA. The blast shattered windows across the regional capital, also called Chelyabinsk, wounding more than 1,400 people and damaging more than 4,000 buildings.
Proposals proffered at the Chebarkul powwow included holding an annual cosmic music and fireworks festival and erecting a floating beacon-tipped pyramid atop the lake.
One official pitched a Meteor Disneyland to recreate the events of Feb. 15, while another pressed for building a Cosmic Water Park. A third wanted to transform the look of the city by painting space landscapes on the facades of its drab and ubiquitous Soviet-era buildings.
The most detailed proposals, though, came from Chebarkul Mayor Andrei Orlov, who urged regular and intensive discussions to keep the tourism idea alive.
Orlov plans to build a diving center at the lake when the ice melts so tourists can search for meteorites in the 3 meters of mud that lie 11 meters below the surface.
The first thing we need here are road signs in Russian and English, and cops who can say Hello and OK to foreigners, Orlov said. We dont want to be like the pyramids near Cairo, where tourists come for an hour, shout, Aladdin, come out, and leave.
One local travel agency, Sputnik, is already organizing summer tours for two Japanese groups of as many as 10 people each, said Elena Kolesnikova, a manager of the company.
One is a two-day tour to the impact site at Chebarkul, while the other includes city sightseeing and will last longer, Kolesnikova said. The price is around $800 per person, which includes the hotel but not plane tickets.
The Chelyabinsk region, home to billionaire Victor Rashnikovs Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel, produces more than 7 percent of Russias steel.
The local history museum has already replaced its main attraction with a Meteor Day exhibit that includes a coin-sized meteorite surrounded by the front pages of newspapers trumpeting the citys new claim to fame.