The catastrophes of yesteryear have created some of today’s most compelling travel destinations and “dark tourism” is thriving around the world. Increasingly, thrill-seekers are visiting disaster areas (such as Chernobyl, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), conflict areas (such as Ukraine) or historical sites famous for tragedy (like Pompeii, the third-most visited historical site in the world.)
It should therefore come as no surprise that sometimes even today’s catastrophes are creating tourist draws. Such is the case with one of the biggest trends in outdoor trips in Israel – an excursion to the sinkholes of the Dead Sea.
Much has been written and said about the hiking and outdoor tourism industry in Israel since the COVID pandemic subsided. Israelis forced to remain home during the pandemic were left with no choice but to tour the country and rediscovered it in the process, including the most remote corners – and as in this case, the most colorful corners.
Over the past year, magnificent images of sinkholes near the Dead Sea, some in truly astonishing colors, have popped up on social media: from turquoise sinkholes to one that is coal-black, and another that is a kind of pink or crimson (like the infamous dress, eyewitness accounts differ) and looks like something out of a fairy tale. Of course, behind the mind-blowing pictures stands a single, solitary, and horrifying tragedy – that of the Dead Sea shoreline receding.
Zvika Peretz, 59, is one of the most experienced tour guides in Israel and runs Eretz Hatzvi Tours. For almost 15 years, he has been guiding sightseers all over the country, from the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to Hanukkah lamp tours in Jerusalem.
Peretz also realized a bit over a year ago that the sinkhole phenomenon had become a tourism magnet and decided to dive in, creating a four-hour tour in which he takes visitors to various sinkholes, with detailed, illuminating, and heart-wrenching explanations about the desert landscape, which is changing daily. For the worse, of course.
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Peretz is not the only guide who has begun tours of “sinkhole-land,” with tours by Guy Golan, the Hevel Eretz company, and the adventure tour company Afran being among the most prominent. There are also more than a few private tour guides, who are responding to the requests of sightseers, eager to witness the unique site.
“The ground changes all the time and one to three new sinkholes form every day,” Peretz says. “The shifts happen on a daily basis. For instance, last week I was on a morning tour and saw one thing, and in the evening I saw a significant change in the lay of the land. So the ground is active, and therefore also dangerous.
“The entire area from Lido Junction to the hotels is geologically active, including Route 90,” he says. “So people could find themselves in a sinkhole while driving. But the government does not take responsibility for the space, for reasons not pertaining to public safety but to economifc and political considerations. So the road remains open, after a risk management assessment, but to the east of the road the government did bother to place dozens of warning signs – sometimes contradicting one another. The bottom line is that the government is shirking its responsibility.”
According to Peretz, who still remembers how in the roaring ‘80s the waters of the Dead Sea almost lapped the shoulders of Route 90 – whereas now you need binoculars to see the water from the very same road – the entire area is in clear danger of sinkhole formation. But there appears to be no danger, as it were, of action by the authorities.
“The sinkhole phenomenon was greatly accelerated starting from 1979, when the Dead Sea Works [potash plant] began pumping from the Dead Sea’s northern basin, after having completely destroyed the southern basin, and the surface level of the Dead Sea began to recede exponentially,” he says.
So far, he is upholding the common narrative, but then he says: “Since then, over 8,000 sinkholes have formed, but the phenomenon didn’t begin with the pumping, nor was it caused by it. That may have accelerated it, but Henry Baker Tristram wrote in his 1865 book “The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine,” on page 242, how he traveled with a convoy on Mount Sodom, and suddenly a camel fell, with all the gear strapped to it, into a sinkhole that opened under it.” Peretz makes it clear that this is a geological phenomenon larger than the pumping by the Dead Sea Works.
“The sights you encounter are truly unique, not to be found anywhere else,” he says. “You get into the mud, into the streams, including bathing in the sinkholes. There’s a crimson-red sinkhole, where the color of the water is derived from algae and bacteria, and I expect it won’t remain there long. I expect that the recession of the water surface will lead to the extinction of this algae, and then the sinkhole will change color. There’s a sinkhole with dozens of hot springs, so your feet soak in boiling water and the rest of the body in cool water.
"I also sometimes lead a tour of the salt formations and stalactites area. The most beautiful trip in the country, in my opinion, and that’s where the amazing black sinkholes are,” he adds.
“This is a very popular trend,” Peretz confirms, “and all of Israel comes here. Really. If for 14 years I’ve been giving tours for a specific crowd, here I’m exposed to all walks of society eager to experience this phenomenon.
But this trend draws the curious, who often don’t realize the danger into which they walk – or more precisely, drive. “People hardly walk around this space independently,” Peretz says. “You see hikers sometimes, but very few. What the public does, which is truly stupid and outrageous, is to take off-road vehicles down to the water line.
"About two years ago a traveler went down with a jeep and got stuck in the mud, as did the two tractors sent to rescue him. One of them is still stuck there, 100 meters from the Metzokei Dragot Junction, like some landscape sculpture,” he adds.
“Travelers must understand that this is a very geologically active area, and therefore also dangerous,” he says. So how does he take groups of travelers to tour and even dip in the sinkholes? “Anyone traveling with me has to sign a waiver saying they can’t sue me. If the state doesn’t take responsibility for this area, you expect me to take responsibility for it?”
And if no one is taking responsibility for the situation, all that is left is to go down to what is left of the Dead Sea and view one of the most compelling, colorful, and ultimately saddest displays Israeli nature has to offer today.