Turkmenistan in crisis relies on tourism, a lost challenge?

Turkmenistan border

Turkmenistan is probably one of the most loved countries on this blog. It’s being almost unknown gives to this corner of Central Asia a magnetic attraction, it’s strategic position – between Iran and Uzbekistan – makes almost inevitable to cross Turkmenistan when travelling the region by car or motorbike. The impermeability of it’s borders is at the same time its strength and its weakness. Life in Turkmenistan is so much determined by its President’s wishes that is difficult to understand what plans Turkmenistan will adopt to manage the incipient crisis.

Yes, Turkmenistan is in crisis. The fall in oil prices has been a hard blow to the economy of the country. The rate of growth, around 11% between 2010 and 2014, has slowed down considerably. The effects of this situation have been felt by the population through increases in gas, electricity, water and food prices, devaluation of the local currency and straitened state budget. In these circumstances the President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has started to speak about tourism as a fkey resource for the country economy.

Turkmenistan has a lot of places to see: Darwaza crater, the ancient towns of Merv and Urgench, the remote Caspian areas and many other. However, the visa policy is awful and makes very difficult to enter in the country, issue well known to our readers often writing us looking for help. During last decades tourism in Turkmenistan has literally vanished, falling from 350 thousand arrivals to less than 20 thousand yearly. In Turkmenistan getting sure data is not easy, the authorities very simply say Turkmenistan is the heaviest and happiest country in the world.

In any case, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has decided that thing need to change criticising the national airline for the lack of routes, ordering the costruction of the biggest airport in Central Asia and singing the anthem of the next Games Indoor and of Martial Arts planned in September 2017. The omnipresence of his leader could be the biggest brake for every development project of Turkmenistan. The Turkmen system is, indeed, a mere sounding box unable to take a whatever decision autonomously.

The beginning year keynote speech of the President has set ambitious goals for the country, a speech held before a government dismissed just a few days later by Berdimuhamedov himself. Meanwhile the economic crisis doesn’t diminish, costing Yashigeldy Kakayev now former minister for Energetic Affairs his job. Russia has stopped to buy Turkmen gas in January, China ha reduced by half the project of an important pipeline (whose earns, anyway, will cover previous loans to Turkmenistan) and Iran after the lifting of sanctions is nowadays a fierce competitor.

In such a situation is obvious the necessity to diversify the country’s revenues, the first thought goes to tourism as the sector to focus on. Yet, Turkmenistan has not the historical heritage of Uzbekistan and has not the landscapes of Tajikistan, without considering the complacent isolation in which has locked up itself to enjoys its petrodollars. Now things have changed, the Turkmen eccentricity so well represented by the capital Ashgabat has to attract more than a few bold travellers, now are needed concrete plans and realism far from the personality cult.

As stated above, Turkmenistan is a country worth to visit but is really risking to became prisoner of itself and of its autocratic regime. Travelling in the Karakum Desert to reach the Door of Hell is a stunning emotion, so far as to observe puzzled the marbles of the capital city or to discover Avaza transformed in Las Vegas. Despite proclamations, for the time being Turkmenistan remains almost impenetrables just as its borders, the same borders should be crossed by the so coveted tourists.

Image source: https://jamestown.org

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