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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmenistan Opens $1.5Bln Resort

APTurkmenistan hopes that the posh resort, located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, will help diversify its economy.
TURKMENBASHI, Turkmenistan -- The president of this normally reclusive nation staged lavish ceremonies for foreign guests and media Monday to launch a new $1.5 billion resort on the desert shore of the Caspian Sea in a city named after his eccentric and autocratic predecessor.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov stood on the porch of one of three gleaming, white luxury hotels just completed here and told thousands of guests that the development would help his energy-rich country diversify its economy.

He also said the development represented a chance to attract investors to his Central Asian desert nation of 5 million. Last week, Berdymukhammedov said he wants to expand the country's relations to the United States and the West.

"For us, there are no near or far countries, large or small companies -- there are only honest and reliable partners," he said.

He said his open-door policy "has created a beneficial investment climate and all the necessary conditions for doing business."

Ahead of Monday's inaugural ceremony, thousands of students and residents from villages scattered in the nearby desert lined the road leading up to the new hotels, which were adorned with giant portraits of Berdymukhammedov.

Government officials flew in more than 100 diplomats and journalists from the capital, Ashgabat, for the morning ceremony. Among the delegations present were officials from Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran.

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
Girls in traditional Turkmen dress standing at the resort's opening Monday.

The city of Turkmenbashi is about 700 kilometers west of Ashgabat.

Late former President Saparmurat Niyazov, who preferred to be called Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All Turkmens," named the city after himself as part of an elaborate personality cult that he developed over two decades of autocratic rule.

Schools, streets, theaters and villages throughout Turkmenistan were named after Niyazov, and a rotating gold-plated statue of the nation's "first president," as he is now called, soars on a pedestal above the cityscape. Niyazov also renamed a city after his father and the month of April after his mother.

Former health minister Berdymukhammedov, who was elected after Niyazov's death in December 2006, has instituted quiet reforms reversing some of his predecessor's policies and has dropped some ambitious building projects -- including construction of a 2,100-square kilometer (810-square mile) lake in the middle of the country's Karakum Desert.

Huge portraits of Berdymukhamedov hang on some public buildings, and he is a fixture on news broadcasts. But he has not built a personality cult like that of Niyazov, whose image is still everywhere.

Berdymukhammedov said the huge development project, called Avaza, is meant as a rival to tourist resorts on the Red Sea in Egypt and along Turkey's Mediterranean coast. But it is opening at a time when the world tourism industry is suffering the aftershocks of the financial crisis.

Dozens of foreign businessmen attended the opening ceremony, and some of them presented ambitious proposals, including a Russian project to build a year-round ski resort with artificial slopes and snow.

Berdymukhammedov described Avaza in one government publication as Turkmenistan's Klondike Gold Rush. In the speech, he said the resort will be designated a free economic zone and granted reduced taxes and import duties.

The proposal is another sign of change in the Turkmen economy, which until recent years was mostly closed to foreign corporations.

The district, a short distance from the country's largest oil refinery, will stretch for 26 kilometers and cover an area of 5,000 hectares, including a seven-kilometer, man-made river.

Avaza is the latest in a string of eye-catching projects, including the construction of a luxury residential and commercial district in the capital that will feature a 220-meter skyscraper and a golf course.

Turkmenistan is the second-biggest natural gas producer in the former Soviet Union after Russia, and Moscow controls the only existing export routes for Turkmen gas. Turkmenistan has shown interest in exporting gas to China and the West and could help Europe diversify its gas imports away from Russia.