The history of Turkmenistan tourism is a short but relativity exciting one. Nestled in the heart of Central Asia, Turkmenistan is a land of timeless landscapes, rich culture, and a history that stretches back millennia. Yet, despite its remarkable attractions, this country remains one of the least-visited destinations in the world. Turkmenistan, despite being the exciting exclusive destination that it is, has never enjoyed particularly well renowned success in the tourism department.
Before the Soviet period, tourism to Turkmenistan was relatively a rare occurrence. It’s a very secluded destination, landlocked except for access to the Caspian Sea and difficult to travel to across land. That being said Turkmenistan boasts a history that's as old as civilization itself. Its roots can be traced to ancient Silk Road trade routes, where it served as a crucial crossroads between East and West. This history has left behind a trove of archaeological riches, including the ancient city of Merv (now Mary), which was once one of the world's largest cities.
During the Soviet Union the region remained largely closed to international tourism. Even domestic tourism to Turkmenistan was extremely rare with most Soviet citizens preferring Crimea, Sochi, Moscow or Georgia to Ashgabat. During the Soviet Union it was relatively left to its own devices. As long as it produced more oil and gas than it consumed, Moscow was happy.
Turkmenistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and this period marked the beginning of a slow transformation in the country's approach to tourism. However, the government's control over the nation's tourism industry remained tight, limiting the number of visitors and the range of experiences available to them.
Most people considered Turkmenistan the relaxed ‘Stan during the 90s as the other Central Asian Republics slowly descended into dictatorship. It took roughly 10 years before Turkmenistan fully embraced an extreme leadership.
In the 1990s very few tourists travelled to Turkmenistan. In fact until 2017 it was illegal to travel to the Gates of Hell (Darvaza) . Before this the few extreme travellers had to pretend that they were exploring the Karakum Desert. The Gates of Hell, or Darvaza Gas Crater is probably Turkmenistan’s most famous attraction . This surreal phenomenon is a massive crater that has been burning for decades due to the ignition of a natural gas deposit. Despite its remote location in the Karakum Desert, the crater has gained international fame and has become a bucket-list destination for adventurous travellers.
The Darvaza Gas Crater's mystique and the sheer spectacle of flames shooting out of the ground have drawn thrill-seekers and photographers from around the globe, putting Turkmenistan on the map for a unique type of tourism.
During the mid 2000s, Turkmenistan made it as difficult as possible to travel to the country, introducing a system of Letter of invitation as well as visa checks. This is when Turkmenistan gained the reputation as a famously difficult country to get in to. It was especially difficult to get to during times that were considered events of national importance . These included Independence Day (27 th September), Neutrality Day (17 th December), as well as elections and sporting events.
Most tourists turned to the trusty transit visa in order to get access to the reclusive country, however recently transit visas have been restricted to only truck drivers who are transporting goods from Iran to Uzbekistan or visa versa.
When COVID hit, Turkmenistan was one of the earliest countries to close its borders. And as a warped fact of reality, the two most closed off countries in the world, North Korea and Turkmenistan, ended up being the last two countries to open their borders to international travellers. We were the first group back there in early April 2023.
In recent years, Turkmenistan has made a point of rejecting as many applications as possible. It seems from experience that they love rejecting applications that don’t fit their narrowly defined boundaries of passport quality, passport photo and correct information.
With that in mind, efforts have also been made to showcase the country's diverse cultural heritage, including its traditional music, dance, and handicrafts. Turkmenistan's unique festivals, such as Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebrations, Turkmen Horse Day, Melon Festival and National Carpet Day , are increasingly being opened to tourists.
If you'd like to experience Turkmen tourism for yourself, join us in this elusive, exciting and incrediby unique country!