Turkmens Start Work on Resort

TURKMENBASHI, Turkmenistan -- Turkmenistan's leader inaugurated the construction of a $5 billion tourism complex on the Caspian coast on Monday, his latest gesture to open up the reclusive country to the world.

Locked away during Soviet times and later under the 21-year rule of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan has been slowly opening its doors since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov came to power a year ago.

On Monday, he officially opened construction of a complex in Turkmenbashi, where he plans to build dozens of new hotels, fountains, roads and parks.

"Any government that has such a coast would see it as a huge blessing," he said after a ceremony. "Turkmenistan is actively integrating into the global community while following its own model of development."

State media have touted the area as a tourist hot spot, but critics believe its long, cold winters and remote location dent its allure as a tourist destination.

Berdymukhammedov said the government would earmark $1 billion for the project, not far from the Iranian border, while foreign companies including Russia's Itera and France's Bouygues have pledged to put in a further $4 billion.

He vowed to introduce tax breaks for construction companies and easier visa procedures for tourists -- a step forward for a country that was first in the former Soviet bloc to introduce a visa regime for other former members.