[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 23 July 2007, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Turkmenistan starts tourist drive
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News Central Asia correspondent

Plans for the new resort ( image: Turkmenistan TV)
The resort will have Turkmenistan's first free economic zone
Turkmenistan's president has announced plans to spend $1bn and seek additional foreign investment to create a major tourist resort on the Caspian Sea.

Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov unveiled the plan in Turkmenbashi, a town set to become a major tourist destination.

The slogan "A new era, a new Turkmenistan" lit up the sky.

Turkmenbashi was named after the late autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov, whose rule resulted in two decades of almost complete isolation.

Free economic zone

Several Turkish companies have already started construction of what looks, on paper at least, like a metropolis by the sea - with dozens of hotels, spas, seaside restaurants and glimmering spaceship-like skyscrapers.

President Berdymukhamedov told foreign investors that the country's first free economic zone would release them from custom duties, and that the government would ease visa restrictions for tourists - all of this in a country that has been for more than two decades one of the most isolated places in the world.

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (r) viewing the project ( image: Turkmenistan TV)
President Berdymukhamedov unveiled the project
Mr Niyazov's rule was so autocratic that even Turkmen citizens needed special permission to move around the country.

Foreign tourists were extremely rare and could never travel without a government minder.

For those few who managed to visit, Mr Niyazov's bizarre personality cult became a major attraction.

From the golden statue of the Turkmen leader that followed the sun's orbit, to the giant monument to a book that he wrote, everything in Turkmenistan was about its president.

But since Mr Niyazov's death last December, things have been changing.

Domestic travel restrictions have been lifted, there are fewer checkpoints, teaching foreign languages is no longer banned and the internet is easier to access.

But even though the profile of the late leader is no longer burnt onto TV screens, the new president still comes from the old team and greater openness has not brought political reform.

The media is fully controlled by the state, foreign journalists are not welcome, the country has only one party and most people are still afraid to criticise the government.

But as one resident of the capital Ashgabat put it, an overdose of freedom in the country that has never had it could only bring chaos and that is why most people, he said, prefer what they seem to be getting - a slow but steady change.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific