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The Make Believe Issue

Azerbaijan Is Trying to Attract Tourism with Its Crude Oil Spas

While getting your crude oil all over the place is usually frowned upon, there's one town in Azerbaijan that's tied its fortune to dunking tourists in the stuff.

While getting your crude oil all over the place is usually frowned upon, there's one town in Azerbaijan where they've tied their fortunes to dunking tourists in the stuff. You may have heard of this practice, as Western media periodically makes note of it in pieces that range from mocking to only sort of mocking in tone.

The spa town is Naftalan, whose boosters use a nod from Marco Polo and an ancient myth about a mangy camel cured by oily water to claim a centuries-long appreciation for the curative properties of their precious sticky icky. The country's not-very-free media outlets are the primary source of scholarship on the anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, anti-arthritic benefits of soaking in oil (the Environmental Protection Agency considers its primary ingredient, naphthalene, a "possible human carcinogen"). These arguments date to the late 19th century, when a German entrepreneur, frustrated that the Naftalan crude didn't burn easily, marketed it instead as a salve. The Soviets picked up on the idea as a way to fuel the local economy, and in the 1980s about 75,000 people visited Naftalan's oil spas each year, helped there by free trips offered by the government. But the USSR called it quits in 1991, followed by a brutal war between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. Pleasure seekers vanished as hotel rooms filled with refugees.

Azeris' next repressive regime looked a lot like the last one. Heydar Aliyev, who had been the leader of Azerbaijan in the Soviet era, again took control of the country, from 1993 until his death, in 2003, after which his son, Ilham, was "elected" president. The younger Aliyev shared his predecessor's hope that Naftalan's unique draw, its ailment-curin' oil, could shoehorn some diversity into the country's energy-dependent economy. Spas and sanatoria have been renovated and expanded in an effort to attract more international visitors. With each new project, President Aliyev dutifully cuts the ribbon before awkward press tours. Videos show him watching bathtubs in luxury rooms sputter and fill with dark brown oil, his humorless face definitely not smiling for the cameras. Ah, Naftalan.