DASHOGUZ, Turkmenistan — Many state workers in Turkmenistan’s northern Dashoguz region have little say over where they will spend their precious vacations this summer.
Several state workers have told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service that they were ordered by authorities to buy holiday packages for Avaza, a glitzy resort town on Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast where hotels are largely empty due to exorbitant prices.
“They tell us that everyone who doesn’t go [to Avaza] will be fired from their jobs, 100 percent,” a state employee in the region’s main city, Dashoguz, told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity in fear of reprisal in authoritarian Turkmenistan, where dissent or criticism of the government is not tolerated.
The government employees told RFE/RL that they must buy holiday packages for up to 10 nights that cost, on average, about $740 per person.
The vacation trips sold in Dashoguz cover hotel costs and include breakfast, the Turkmen workers said, adding that they must pay separately for things such as transport, lunch, and dinner.
State officials in Dashoguz did not reply to RFE/RL’s requests for comment on the allegations by the government employees.
The average monthly salary for state workers is around $230 a month — considered low for a country that has vast energy reserves.
For most of the time since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991, its citizens have enjoyed either free or greatly subsidized utilities, such as natural gas, electricity, or water. Even certain amounts of some commodities, like salt, were given away for free.
But with the largely sandy country mired in the worst economic crisis of its short post-Soviet history, utilities and other items that used to be free or extremely cheap must now be paid for as the government has reduced or completely ended its subsidy programs.
Additionally, many state workers complain they are routinely forced to pay for school renovations and compulsory subscriptions to state newspapers and magazines.
That has left many Turkmen families scrambling to make ends meet, with large numbers of people unable to find work leaving the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
It’s also not easy to get to Avaza.
Holidaymakers from Dashoguz have complained about what they say is a lack of direct flights between Dashoguz and Turkmenbashi — the nearest big city to Avaza.
People who travel to Avaza from the capital, Ashgabat, or other regions in this country of some 5.6 million usually fly or take a train or bus to Turkmenbashi, from where they often have to take a taxi or another bus to get to the resort town.
Many of those who have spent a holiday in Avaza have complained of poor-quality services, low Internet speed and, oddly enough, a ban on taking photos in many parts of the town.
Avaza was built between 2007 and 2017 as part of authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s plan to create a world-class tourism infrastructure in Turkmenistan.
Despite billions of dollars being spent on the project, Avaza has so far failed to become a sought-after tourist destination.
Too exclusive for many Turkmen — with hotel prices beyond their economic reach — it also hasn’t caught on internationally in a country where getting a visa is a very lengthy and frequently futile process.
The lonely resort is often used only by Berdymukhammedov, who occasionally hosts international meetings, concerts, and other events in Avaza.
It was, for example, the site of a seemingly lackluster international windsurfing competition during a week when there was little wind.
And in 2013, international pop star Jennifer Lopez came under criticism from human rights activists after a concert in Avaza to celebrate Berdymukhammedov’s 56th birthday.
Lopez subsequently issued a statement saying that if she had been aware of Turkmenistan’s poor human rights record, as measured by several international rights groups, she would not have gone to Avaza.
It’s a choice that many Turkmen state workers don’t have this summer.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service