Reclusive Turkmens open up with $1.5b resort

The development represents a chance to attract investors to this Central Asian desert nation of five million.

Turkmenistan resort 88 248 (photo credit: )
Turkmenistan resort 88 248
(photo credit: )
The president of this normally reclusive nation staged lavish ceremonies for foreign guests and media last Monday to launch a new $1.5 billion resort on the desert shore of the Caspian Sea in a city named after his eccentric and autocratic predecessor. Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov stood on the porch of one of three gleaming white luxury hotels just completed here and told thousands of guests that the development would help his energy-rich country diversify its economy. He also said the development represented a chance to attract investors to his Central Asian desert nation of five million. Two weeks ago, Berdymukhamedov said he wanted to expand the country's relations to the United States and the West. "For us there are no near or far countries, large or small companies, there are only honest and reliable partners," he said. Berdymukhamedov said his open-door policy "has created a beneficial investment climate and all the necessary conditions for doing business." Ahead of Monday's inaugural ceremony, thousands of students and residents from villages scattered in the nearby desert lined the road leading up to the new hotels, which were adorned with giant portraits of Berdymukhamedov. Government officials flew more than 100 diplomats and journalists from the capital, Ashgabat, for the morning ceremony. Among the delegations present were officials from Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran. The city of Turkmenbashi is about 700 kilometers west of Ashgabat. Late former president Saparmurat Niyazov, who preferred to be called Turkmenbashi, or Father of All Turkmens, named the city after himself as part of an elaborate personality cult he developed over two decades of autocratic rule. Schools, streets, theaters and villages throughout Turkmenistan were named after Niyazov, and a rotating gold-plated statue of the nation's "first president," as he is now called, soars on a pedestal above the cityscape. Niyazov also renamed a city after his father, and the month of April after his mother. Former health minister Berdymukhamedov, who was elected after Niyazov's death in December 2006, has instituted quiet reforms reversing some of his predecessors' policies and dropped some ambitious building projects - including construction of a 2,100-square kilometer lake in the middle of the country's Karakum Desert. Huge portraits of Berdymukhamedov hang on some public buildings, and he is a fixture on news broadcasts. But he has not built a personality cult like that of Niyazov, whose image is still everywhere. Berdymukhamedov said the huge development project, called Avaza, is meant as a rival to tourist resorts on the Red Sea in Egypt and along Turkey's Mediterranean coast. But it is opening at a time when the world tourism industry is suffering the aftershocks of the financial crisis. Dozens of foreign businessman attended the opening ceremony, some of them presenting ambitious proposals, including a Russian project to build a year-round ski resort with artificial slopes and snow. Berdymukhamedov described Avaza in one government publication as Turkmenistan's Klondike Gold Rush. In the speech, he said the resort would be designated a free economic zone and granted reduced taxes and import duties. The proposal is another sign of change in the Turkmen economy, which until recent years was mostly closed to foreign corporations. The district, a short distance from the country's largest oil refinery, will stretch for 26 km. and cover an area of 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres), including a seven-kilometer man-made river. Avaza is the latest in a string of eye-catching projects including the construction of a luxury residential and commercial district in the capital that will feature a 341-meter skyscraper and a golf course. Turkmenistan is the second-biggest natural-gas producer in the former Soviet Union after Russia, and Moscow controls the only existing export routes for Turkmen gas. Turkmenistan has shown interest in exporting gas to China and the West, and it could help Europe diversify its gas imports away from Russia.