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For Turkmen Visitors, Tour Guides A Must 'At All Times' During Asian Indoor Games

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (center) waves to the media during the starting ceremony of a 500-day nationwide horse race at the historical site of Nisa just outside Ashgabat on May 5, 2016, in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

Turkmen officials say they're expecting tens of thousands of foreign tourists to pour in for the Asian Indoor and Martial Art Games (AIMAG) that the normally cloistered country is hosting in September.

Now, Ashgabat is warning that foreigners must hire local guides and avoid straying too far from them.

"While traveling around Turkmenistan, tourists should be accompanied by a tour guide at all times," says the official website of the AIMAG, adding: "All the expenses should be paid by the tourist."

While foreign tourists visiting the secretive Central Asian country are routinely required to hire local guides, this appears to be the first time an official Turkmen website has openly declared such a requirement.

The mandate adds to the already complicated visa process for visiting Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries in the world and often compared to North Korea.

Turkmenistan’s Tourism Ministry has said the country expects "around 150,000 spectators from around the world," a welcome source of revenue for the cash-strapped post-Soviet country.

When tourists in Ashgabat visit the sites, such as this monument to the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, they must be accompanied by an official tour guide "at all times."
When tourists in Ashgabat visit the sites, such as this monument to the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, they must be accompanied by an official tour guide "at all times."

According to AIMAG organizers, some 5,500 athletes from 62 countries are expected to come to Turkmenistan to compete, along with 1,200 in their retinues, including coaches and official delegations.

It is unclear whether the athletes, coaches, and officials are also required to hire local guides while sightseeing in Ashgabat.

Turkmen tour guides can act as official minders who ensure that foreign tourists visit only sites approved by the authorities and stay clear of less prosperous areas and rundown streets.

An Ashgabat-based tour guide and translator recently told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that the government demands that guides regularly inform authorities about their clients’ movements and whereabouts.

"We tour guides have to accompany foreign visitors all day and inform the intelligence services, at least three times a day, about the tourists’ activities," said the tour guide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It’s not only tour guides who closely watch foreign visitors, the source said, as "employees from the Ministry of National Security follow the tourists everywhere on separate vehicles and walk near them in the markets."

He said tour guides in Turkmenistan are paid "miserable" wages and are heavily dependent on visitors' tips.

The AIMAG website makes no reference to the going rate for such chaperones, in a country where GDP per capita was around $7,400 in 2015, according to the World Bank, and unemployment was estimated at around 10 percent, according to the United Nations, although some estimates run much higher.

A Turkmen opposition website recently alleged that some 15 to 20 percent of the salaries of workers in the gas and oil sector will be taken by the state from April until September -- when the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games will take place -- to pay for the games.

Turkmenistan has spared no expense in recent bids to host international sporting events, spending the equivalent of what it would cost to host the Olympics and razing stretches of homes to build infrastructure.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.