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.
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