Turkmenistan opens $2.3 bln bird-shaped international air terminal

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan opened a $2.3 billion air terminal at Ashgabat International Airport on Saturday as part of its bid to become an international transport hub and offset a plunge in traditional revenues from gas exports. The Central Asian desert nation of five million has a strict visa policy and only attracts about 100,000 tourists a year, although it expects higher numbers to visit during the Asian Indoor Games in 2017. Speaking at the white, falcon-shaped building President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said: "We have all the opportunities to become a transport bridge facilitating economic cooperation between Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and South Asia." The former Soviet republic has traditionally relied on exports of natural gas as its main source of foreign currency and revenue. But a decision by Russia, once the biggest buyer of Turkmen gas, to halt imports and the plunge in global energy prices have led to foreign currency shortages, according to local businessmen, and pushed the government's budget into deficit. As part of its diversification drive, the Ashgabat government has taken part in a railroad project connecting Central Asia to Iran. It is also building a $2 billion port on the Caspian Sea and a railway through Afghanistan. While infrastructure megaprojects are a relatively new trend, the construction of lavish and extravagant buildings such as the new terminal has long been a Turkmen trademark. Ashgabat holds a Guinness World Record for the highest density of white marble-clad buildings as well as the largest indoor Ferris wheel. (Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Louise Ireland)