Turkmenistan banks on silk road tourism

August 27, 1999

Turkmenistan has two main resources - fossil fuels and the tourist potential of the ancient Silk Road. But both have their down side. Until new (and politically controversial) pipelines are built, the gas can only be exported to other Confederation of Independent States countries, which either fail to pay their bills or settle them in kind. And the tourist industry is non-existent.

International cooperation is now addressing the problems. This month Turkmenistan and the United States signed a deal under which the US will allocate $150,000 for a study for a Trans-caspian oil pipeline project.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth University's department of tourism is involved in an EU-funded project for developing a tourist infrastructure. The Institute of Archaeology at University College London is in its eighth season of an archaeological dig at Merv, one of the largest British academic undertakings in the CIS. Merv is an ancient site on the Silk Road and is seen as the "cultural capital" of the region.

Geraldine Herrmann, a reader at the institute, said: "This is a real joint collaboration with the Turkmens, not just snooty Europeans telling the locals what to do." A number of European archaeologists have participated - French, Germans, Belgians, Italians, as well as Russians and there is a large local team."

Despite their gas fields, the Turkmens are short of money. Turkmen president Saparmyrat Niyazov (whose preferred title is that of Turkmenbashi - father of the Turkmens) is committed to a policy of "spiritual regeneration" through traditional cultural values.

For the Turkmens, said Dr Herrmann, excavating Merv is "very much a national ideal" and, she added, "they're very keen on encouraging tourism".

Outside archaeological circles Merv is virtually unknown. British archaeologists have written a tourist brochure but they too are strapped for cash and academics are not, generally speaking, publicity experts.

In both respects, the Merv dig has benefited from a Rolex "laureateship" awarded for ongoing research. It received $10,000 in 1996 and considerably more now. The associated publicity which significantly raised the profile of the project also helped.

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