World Bulletin / News Desk
The locals call a giant burning pit that has spit out flames for more than 40 years the Door to Hell.
"It takes your breath away," said Gozel Yazkulieva, a 34-year-old visitor from the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat. "You immediately think of your sins and feel like praying."
One of the world's most isolated countries almost a quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan welcomes just 12,000 to 15,000 tourists from around 50 countries each year.
Tourism officials say the Door to Hell, also called the Derweze crater after a nearby village, could be developed into a key draw for adventure tourists.
"The burning crater... is attracting more and more interest every year, especially among foreign tourists," an official on Turkmenistan's state committee on tourism told AFP.
"The 'lifeless' desert could soon become a hugely interesting destination for different types of tourism - from eco-tourism to extreme sports," he said.
The phenomenon was the result of a simple miscalculation by Soviet scientists.
"Soviet geologists started drilling a borehole to prospect for gas at this spot in 1971," Turkmen geologist Anatoly Bushmakin was quoted by Hurriyet.
"The equipment suddenly drilled through into an underground cavern, and a deep sinkhole formed. The equipment tumbled through but fortunately no one was killed."
"Fearing that the crater would emit poisonous gases, the scientists took the decision to set it alight, thinking that the gas would burn out quickly and this would cause the flames to go out," Bushmakin said.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said, "Our main task is to create an attractive image of Turkmenistan as a tourism destination".
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