Back in 2009, Turkmenistan strongman Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov – who goes by the honorific title of “Protector” – set out a plan to revolutionise the Central Asian country’s tourism industry.
The Awaza National Tourist Zone on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea was born. A decade ago, eight giant marble-clad hotels were built at a reported cost of £884million in an attempt to fulfil the president’s dream of creating a new Dubai.
Except no one ever goes there. “I didn’t see any other visitors in the whole town of Awaza,” wrote Tom for Adventurous Travels. In fact, if Awaza has received any attention at all since its inception, it is generally to highlight how ill-conceived the extravagant resort actually is.
According to the Embassy of Turkmenistan, the project is “dedicated to accumulate all of the most advanced achievements of world architecture, engineering, technical design and creative ideas.”
Everything and nothing all at once, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs now touts it as a “Turkmen Las Vegas” with “numerous casinos and other entertainment centres” on the way. But what is a stay there actually like?
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Getting into Turkmenistan isn’t easy, with would-be tourists from most nations requiring a letter of invitation from a state-authorised travel agent, as well as a visa. Awaza is then a six-hour drive from the capital of Ashgabat on the Iranian border.
There is little of note in the desert landscape along the way, until the ageing road suddenly morphs into a sleek modern highway on the approach to the resort, just south of the city of Turkmenbashi.
Skyscrapers, yacht clubs, a water park, sports facilities, campgrounds and restaurants – all have sprung up seemingly from nothing in the middle of nowhere.
Tom said: “Awaza is probably the least known and most peculiar resort in the world.”
Upon a visit recounted in the Telegraph, Richard Orange said a tour organiser he bumped into believed people were drawn there for the “sheer weirdness of the place.”
Gold leaf and marble is the overall theme, with quirks including Parisian Bateaux Mouches imitation cruises, a concrete yacht, spas offering magnet treatments and a restaurant reserved solely for the president himself.
The hotels themselves attract mixed reviews. Among the TripAdvisor reviews of the Berkarar Hotel, while Masoud N gave five stars and praised the “very nice and beautiful hotel” with “very professional staff”, Arno G relayed an altogether different experience.
He wrote: “Never even try to stay at this hotel.” Explaining: “Upon arrival, I found out that the reservation was cancelled and at 6am was put out the door with four children and elderly parents.”
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Although speckled with white seashells that could be perceived as snow, the sand of the beach is brownish in hue.
A seven-kilometre (four-mile) artificial canal runs through the resort, although most of what lies inland of it remains undeveloped plots of dirt.
Tom noted that the only visible throngs of people were workers bussed in for the upkeep of the complex, regardless of the season or tourist numbers.
He said: “We saw the labourers trimming the hedges, helping to clean out the mess during the construction works and sweeping the wide roads with brooms as well as polishing the street lamps manually!”
Plans to build Gulf-style artificial islands – much like the originals – have been on the rocks for years.
Aside from lacklustre tourist numbers, Awaza’s stunted growth may also be explained by the economic woes of Turkmenistan as a whole. Despite having the world’s fourth-largest gas reserves, for the best part of a decade it has struggled to recover from the worst crisis of its post-Soviet history.
This in turn has a lot to do with the isolationist bent of the country’s leadership, which international observers have long likened to North Korea.
Berdimuhamedow – who ruled from 2007 to 2022 but remains “National Leader of the Turkmen People” – has long maintained close ties with Vladimir Putin but few others.
The regime has a history of authoritarian practices. According to a 2019 report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service, state workers in Turkmenistan’s northern region of Dashoguz were ordered to buy package holidays in Awaza for up to ten nights – this at a cost of $740 (£570) when their monthly earnings averaged $230 (£180).
The notoriously repressive state – which ranked 176th out of 180 for press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 index – does not take kindly to the scrutiny of floundering Awaza.
On July 7, 2015, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a journalist for the Amsterdam-based Alternative Turkmenistan News was detained by National Security Ministry agents while photographing one of the resort’s amusement parks.
On a charge of having prohibited opioid pain medication in his luggage, he was imprisoned for three years and severely mistreated, a report by Capital News Service claims.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan did not respond to Express.co.uk’s request for comment.
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