Thursday, December 13, 2012

The bizarre nation of Turkmenistan: experiment in upscale tourism

Turkmenistan, with the world's fourth largest gas reserves, has chosen the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi as a site for upscale tourism. Turkmenbashi was named by and for the country’s late dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-styled 'Leader of All Turkmen.' The country is now ruled by the only slightly less eccentric dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov

Some 12 kilometers out of town, on an isolated stretch of windswept beach is the country’s latest megaproject, the Avaza Tourist Zone. So far, six swank hotels have opened, mirror images of each other, constructed with billions of dollars from the state budget

But the only people visibly benefiting from Avaza seem to be high-placed government officials on their occasional visits. Otherwise, it is a another rusty post-Soviet town

Locals had hope the boom means jobs. But the government has stalled on promises to ease the country’s notorious visa regime. Without visitors, Avaza looks simply like another vanity project benefiting foreign construction firms and, possibly, elite pocketbooks

Downtown, in the lobby of the only new hotel there -- where British, Malaysian and Turkish oil workers occupy all single rooms -- Berdymukhamedov, sporting an outfit uncannily similar to Popeye’s, poses for a photograph with his yacht Galkynysh ("Revival"). According to wikileaked cables sent by the US Embassy in Ashgabat, the 60 million-euro vessel was a gift from Russian gas-trading firm Itera as it sought concessions in the Caspian. Hotel staff confirmed that the boat, moored across the street behind a few frail conscripts, belongs to the president

Not far from the presidential yacht, shielded by a fleet of half-sunken, rusting naval ships, several boys cast lines into an oil slick, trawling for dinner. “Once you leave Ashgabat,” commented a foreign oil worker, 'Turkmenistan is the third world'
News article, with more photos, here.