Sunday, August 28, 2016


Turkmenistan's Tourism Dream Stands Empty For Now

The Caspian Sea town of Awaza has been turned into a glitzy resort.
The Caspian Sea town of Awaza has been turned into a glitzy resort.
By Farangis Najibullah and Murat Gurban
AWAZA, Turkmenistan -- Just five years ago, Awaza stood as a tiny dacha retreat along the Caspian coast where Turkmen could take refuge from the daily hustle and bustle.

But the rustic mud-brick cottages that once dotted the seaside have been swept away and replaced with gleaming, high-rise luxury hotels.

Dusty dirt roads have given way to smooth asphalt highways and marble sidewalks. Natural beach surroundings have been sculpted into carefully manicured parks.

Behold the transformed Awaza, a luxurious resort town that looms as the centerpiece of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's dreams of building world-class tourism infrastructure in Turkmenistan.

Since taking office in 2006, Berdymukhammedov has channeled a reported $1.4 billion into the project, with Awaza accounting for a major slice of the pie.

But if Awaza was constructed on the adage of, "if you build it they will come," one thing is still missing from the equation -- visitors.

During a recent trip to the newly opened resort, an RFE/RL reporter did not have to fight off flocks of tourists clambering to vacation in luxury. The resort's eight ritzy hotels, rather, were largely empty.

The listed prices appear reasonable by international resort standards. The Kerven Hotel, for example, offers a single-room package that includes a free breakfast, room service, access to tennis courts and a gym, a boat trip, and airport transfer for $50 per person per night. For a couple more dollars, a visitor could enjoy a massage, acupuncture therapy, an Internet connection, and even access to a modern medical center.

Prices Too Steep For Locals

But for domestic tourists like Oraz, who has visited Awaza's beaches for years, the resort prices are too steep.

"I can't afford to stay a week in an Awaza hotel with my family of three," says the doctor from Ashgabat. "In addition to hotel prices, there are other fees to pay, like transport and food. So no, Awaza hotels are not for me."

Oraz instead opts to stay 20 kilometers away in Turkmenbashi, where he pays a "fraction of Awaza hotel prices" for a private apartment-hotel, and drive to Awaza's beach.

Despite excellent facilities, it appears that foreign visitors are not yet thronging to Awaza.
Despite excellent facilities, it appears that foreign visitors are not yet thronging to Awaza.

Shuhrat, a hotel manager at the Awaza resort, is confident that things will pick up.

"We usually had more tourists in July, August, and early September," he says. "Most of Awaza's hotels are completely booked for August. But, again, Awaza is a new place, the business is just beginning here."

Shuhrat and many other locals are now dependent on Awaza's largely state-run hotels and restaurants as their main source of income. And while they acknowledge that the resort will likely be deserted over the winter months, they can plan on receiving a steady state income all year.

He believes the future is bright for Awaza -- a project that is still ongoing with more ambitious plans to build dozens of new hotels, aquaparks, and even artificial islands.

Luring in foreign tourists will be tricky, however. Only a few foreign tourist agencies currently offer tourist packages to Turkmenistan, usually as part of a broader Central Asian tour, and none focus on Awaza as a vacation destination.

Part of the problem is that while Berdymukhammedov has been credited with taking steps to open up the isolated country to the outside world, much more needs to be done to make it truly tourist-friendly.

Visas And Red Tape

The Moscow-based Zharkov Tour travel agency says that the vast majority of visa applications filed by potential customers from Russia have been turned down in recent months.

The Britain-based travel agency Intrepid Travel says it has had no such problems, but does describe the visa process as involving a lot of time and paperwork, including a mandatory "letter of authorization" issued by Ashgabat.

Tourists from many Western countries have the advantage of being able to obtain visas upon their arrival in the country -- at airports or border crossings -- assuming they got their paperwork in order in advance. But Ashirguly Bayriev, an Ashgabat-based author and independent journalist, says Turkmen authorities must further relax regulations and travel restrictions.

"They should scrap the mandatory letter of authorization, which takes several weeks to obtain," Bayriev says. "There are other unnecessary restrictions for foreign tourists -- they have to be accompanied by a local guide during their stay in the country. And they are allowed to stay only in designated hotels."

Some see Awaza as a work in progress, however, and find opportunity in its unfinished state.

Taxi driver Bazar is happy that no public transport links have been established between the resort city and Turkmenbashi, which has the nearest airport.

"Awaza seems to be at the center of the president's attention, which is good for developing our region and creating more jobs," Bazar says. "As for me personally, it's a way of making some extra cash during the summer months."

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah in Prague, with reporting from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondent Murat Gurban in Awaza
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Comment Sorting
by: Atts from: Australia
July 19, 2012 23:19
Personally I would love to visit central Asia again but as Australia has no embassies for Central Asian countries it is extremely difficult and I often give up and go elsewhere. This is a real shame as I enjoyed my 2004 visit to Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan back 2004.

I am aware embassies in countries such as Iran issue visa's for most of the CA countries but I just dont have the time to hang around for weeks on end waiting for them to be issued.

Perhaps the Turkmen president will read this article. But I doubt it things are no easier now to enter any of these countries than it was a decade ago.

In Response

by: Timur from: Kyrgyzstan
July 20, 2012 14:19
As I know you can get Kyrgyz Republic's visa in our airport on arrival. Turkmenistan has embassy in Almaty. But I don't can you get Kazakh visa in their airport.
In Response

by: Timur from: Kyrgyzstan
July 20, 2012 14:35
UPD: But I don't know, can you get Kazakh visa in their airport.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
July 21, 2012 06:00
To ATTS: One thing you can do is (a) go to Russia (I assume you have the Russian embassy in Australia) then (b) take a bus to Kazakhstan from one of the Russian cities that are close to the Kazakh border and on the border put 10/20 euros/dollars into your passport and (c) this will most probably solve all the problems of entering/leaving the country. All these "travel docs" exist exlcusively with the purpose of making travellers' lives difficult and helping govtl officials enrich themselves. So, why not make the life a bit simpler :-)).
In Response

by: Mamuka
July 21, 2012 13:08
@Eugenio, please travel by bus from Moscow to Kazakstan and tell us how you enjoy your holiday! To make it more exciting maybe you can take a marshrutka.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
July 22, 2012 08:39
Dear Mamuka, for your information, in the Summer of 2009 I travelled from Vienna to Astana (Kazakhstan) exclusively BY TRAIN in the Platzkart section. I can assure you that this was an extremely entertaining trip: you get to know a lot of people on the way and get to know their life first-hand.
And then, interestingly enough, on the way out of Kazakhstan it turned out that I happened to overstay my visa by 2 days, which was about to cause some serious problems ("Who gave you the right to violate the migratory legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan?", they asked me on the border). But some 50 euros was enough in order to solve the problem pretty fast.
And this year I even wanted to travel to (apparently) your native GEORGIA by train/bus, but it looks like they don't let the foreigners to pass through the Russian-Georgian border south to Vladikavkaz. So, I have to postpone the trip till the next year and try to figure out how to "solve" this problem in the meantime :-)).
In Response

by: Dua DD from: USA
July 21, 2012 17:04
Part of the problem is that while Berdymukhammedov has been credited with taking steps to open up the isolated country to the outside world, much more needs to be done to make it truly tourist-friendly.

What else is there to see but the hotels? Building hotels in the middle of essentially nowhere is not going to get people to travel from places they can get to closer? There must be SOMETHING unique about the area that it can offer? And it doesn't sound like it's easy to get to (visa/etc.). Great idea, but without infrastructure and something to actually look at once you get there.....ehhh, too bad for the investments that were made.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 22, 2012 07:06
It is the point - the "isolation" by shaddow of Chauvinistic Russia
and slender, like "man from Kazahstan" dirty pamflet in USA,
or like milder, softer, quieter but very ugly stink from Austria
behind the back of most of nations of former USSR, to
reduce them to a spitt.

Just buy air tiket and fly by plane to any Capital, or large City
of any CIS country, including Kazahstan and Turkmenistan.

Or ride a scanky goat to Viena, than ride a donkey to Moscow, than ride a horse to the first city in Kazahstan, than buy a plane ticket to any City in non-Russian CIS country.

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