THE PLANK DECEMBER 10, 2009
Dubai is faltering. With its gleaming towers, indoor ski slopes, man-made islands, and other luxury projects, the city had epitomized the wealth that the global economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s produced. It was even pronounced "too big to fail." But then, the boom went bust, and Dubai wasn't immune.
And yet, despite glaring warning signals emanating from the Persian Gulf, some unusual suspects are moving forward with plans for their own Dubais. Turkmenistan, which ranks up with Burma and North Korea as one of the most appallingly totalitarian countries on earth and which only recently opened its doors to foreign investors, is building Avaza, a $5 billion resort complex on the Caspian Sea. Set for completion in 2020, a goal that's remained intact despite the global recession, Avaza will include high-rise hotels, sports facilities, conference centers, and, of course, a man-made island (which, when seen from the air, will resemble a crab--President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov's zodiac sign). As the project was just getting started in early 2008, a government press release outlined the vision for Avaza's opulence:
Pleasure boats will furrow the river with the original bridges thrown across. Restaurants, cafes, sports grounds and footpaths will be constructed on the river banks. The river and lakes will be located in the natural hollows blended well with the local landscape. The lakes will surround the cozy beaches and when the gale will rage throughout the sea tourists can swim in the calm lakes.
Similarly, Kazakhstan is building Aktau-City, which will cost $38 billion and, like Avaza, will be completed by 2020. Construction of hotels and shopping malls is currently underway, and the complex already boasts, interestingly, an academic showpiece: Caspian State University of Technology and Engineering, which opened earlier this year.
So how do Avaza and Aktau-City seem to be faring thus far, in the less-than-stellar economic climate? Not well.
Avaza had trouble filling guestrooms after the first hotels opened this summer and fall. “[T]he ministries in Ashgabat received orders to select staff to be sent to spend a few nights in the five-star hotels. Some had to pay the hotel bills from their own pocket,” Farid Tuhbatullin, the head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, recently told Transitions Online, a news website that covers Central Asia. It doesn't help that Turkmenistan also has short summers--meaning, beach-going in February won't work as well as it does in Dubai--and an archaic visa process, or that it borders those havens of stability, Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. And Aktau-City has some, er, environmental hazards to consider: According to the website Eurasianet, "[R]adioactive waste from Aktau’s disused Chemical Ore Mining and Smelting Complex has gathered [nearby]." What's more, in attracting investors and tourists, both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan must contend with bad international reputations--the former's being worse than the latter's--on human rights, corruption, and other governance issues.
Dubai certainly juggled its fair share of problems, controversies, and abuses as it was developing--but it at least had a thriving global economy going for it. With the current recession only exacerbating their local challenges and deficiencies, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are in trouble. "[The Turkmen government] would have to make an enormous effort to attract foreign tourists: advertisements in all major media, low prices and, most importantly, the highest quality of service," an architect familiar with Avaza told AFP recently. "But right now they have none of these things. Why should Russians come here? After all, they have Turkey and Thailand, and there everything is already set."
I propose that repressive countries stop building luxury-lands with cleverly shaped islands and monster hotels altogether. Deal? Sounds good.