AVAZA, Turkmenistan — The billboard depicts white sandy beaches blanketed in sunshine, hotels with gleaming marble facades and swarms of vacationers enjoying Turkmenistan's newest resort town.
Opposite the massive billboard, however, rain has turned the rutted road leading to the Avaza beach complex into a muddy river, painting a less flattering portrait of this resort with virtually no visitors.
Avaza, the brainchild of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has risen in less than two years from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the impoverished western reaches of this former Soviet republic.
Berdymukhamedov hopes this shining city by the sea will attract thousands of tourists from Russia and her neighbours, helping to diversify his country's economy, heavily reliant on exports of oil and natural gas.
But with a season only six weeks long, an oil refinery filling the air with noxious fumes and many other alternatives for foreign tourists, the question seems not to be "can they build it?", but rather "should they?"
"They 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," said an architect familiar with the project.
"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," added the architect, who requested anonymity to speak openly.
Turkmenistan, an energy-rich Central Asian nation bordering Afghanistan, is one of the world's most isolated and repressive states, often barring its own citizens from leaving and maintaining a Byzantine visa process for visitors.
It is best known for the antics of former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006 after a two-decade rule marked by a bizarre personality cult complete with gold statues and gaudy monuments to his own rambling book of philosophy.
But if Niyazov's architectural style was a mix of Ancien Regime grandeur -- he reportedly loved Versailles -- and Silk Road opulence, Berdymukhamedov seems to find inspiration in his country's more recent Soviet past.
Five almost identical hotels line the Avaza beach resort just 12 kilometres (7.4 miles) from the industrial city of Turkmenbashi, where the briny sea air combines with the brackish scent of flared gas from a Soviet-era refinery.
Each is owned by and assigned to a government ministry, and discounted rooms are handed out as a perk to ministry employees, a relic of the incentives pledged to productive workers in Soviet times.
In the cavernous lobby of the Hotel Watanchy (Patriot), Berdymukhamedov looks down sternly from a massive gilded portrait attired in his finest military dress. This is, after all, the Defence Ministry hotel.
But besides the ever-present visage of the president, there appeared to be few, if any, guests, lending the abandoned marble corridors an air of suspense and sadness.
When dinner was served at 7:00 pm -- meals are at fixed times and if you aren't there, you don't eat -- an AFP reporter sat alone among hundreds of place settings, their starched napkins standing at attention.
A pair of young waitresses, helpful and well-mannered like all the hotel's staff although speaking no foreign language besides Russian, milled awkwardly under a massive chandelier before approaching the table.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, they insisted nervously that there were other guests in the hotel, where empty hallways conjured up memories of the haunted hotel in Stanley Kubrick's classic horror film "The Shining".
What they really wanted to know, the waitresses said, was what life was like in other countries. Neither had ever left Turkmenistan.
"It's fun to talk with foreigners. We haven't had any foreign guests before. All the foreigners here stay in the hotels in the city (Turkmenbashi)," one of the waitresses remarked.
Given the numerous problems facing Avaza -- visa restrictions, poor infrastructure, boring architecture -- critics have been quick to dismiss the project as financially unsustainable and aesthetically undesirable.
"It is not suitable to discuss any high aesthetics. They are more like tall apartment buildings than prestigious, high-class hotels," the architect complained.
But despite such problems, Avaza is not without its own peculiar underdog charm.
Standing on a marble balcony branching off one of the hotel's three-room executive suites -- a bargain at 108 dollars (72 euros) -- it is possible to observe a sunset unlike any other in the world.
Miles away in the waters of the Caspian Sea, a string of offshore oil platforms flare their gas in unison, and for an instant it seems that not one, but seven suns are setting behind the inky black horizon.
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