TINAPA, Nigeria (Reuters) - In the minds of its creators, the Tinapa resort in southeastern Nigeria will rival Dubai or London as a shopping and trading paradise for rich and enterprising Nigerians.
In reality, about $340 million has been spent since 2005 but 80,000 square meters of pristine retail space lie empty, the silence broken only by the footsteps of a few security guards.
The 243-room hotel with a river view is not quite finished. Neither is the water park with its giant snaking slide and wave pool, or the movie theme park -- though a King Kong figure already tops a golden dome.
Originally set for 2006, the launch keeps being postponed, and many fear that inertia is setting in, both because of construction delays and bureaucracy.
Nigeria is Africa's top oil producer, but decades of misrule and corruption have left most of its 140 million people stuck in poverty and its infrastructure in decay. In that context, Tinapa is a bold experiment -- visionary to some, foolhardy to others.
Nigeria's biggest banks have invested in it, though the state of Cross River where the resort is located and the federal government have contributed more and are now heavily in debt.
"The investors knew it would take time for the vision to take hold," said Donald Duke, the former Cross River governor who masterminded the project, in an editorial this month.
He predicted that three years after completion, Tinapa would be drawing 3 million visitors a year and generating an annual 300 billion naira ($2.5 billion) with an enormous multiplier effect on the economy of Cross River and Nigeria as a whole.
But such predictions are a long way from fruition.
"This place should be booming but instead it is empty," said Ushie Peter Tinker, a project manager at a non-government organization, who had taken time off from work in the nearby city of Calabar to visit Tinapa on a recent morning.
Some of the empty shops are already branded with the logos of prestigious clothes, textiles or cosmetics chains and mobile phone networks MTN and Celtel, the two biggest in Nigeria. Three banks have opened branches but there are no customers in sight.
Only one shop was fully stocked, with colorful fabrics imported from other West African countries, but even though it displayed in its window a letter from Tinapa management authorizing the sale of duty free products, it was closed.
"Customs have been preventing us from selling. They say we have to pay duty. That's why no one else has opened. Meanwhile our rent is running but our patience is running thin," said a member of staff, who did not wish to be named.
This is ominous. Customs are one of the most corrupt institutions in Nigeria, the finance minister said last month, and have a powerful vested interest against duty free trade.
But Bassey Ndem, Tinapa's chief executive, said its free trade status had received political approval and customs chiefs would soon match that with the necessary paperwork.
He said Tinapa would succeed because there was pent-up demand for it from affluent Nigerians who currently travel to Europe, the United States or Dubai on shopping holidays.
The idea is for them to have fun at the water park and movie centre and also satisfy their appetite for fashionable brands at duty free prices. There are plans to add a golf course, casino and games arcade.
Tinapa has spent big money advertising on news channel
"Our target customers don't watch Nigerian television, they watch CNN. To them, Nigeria is not glamorous. We want them to associate Tinapa in their minds with Dubai or Paris," said Ndem.
The other key target group for Tinapa are Nigerian traders who take frequent flights to Dubai, India or China to buy goods which they bring back as luggage and sell at home.
"The traders who jump on the plane every two weeks to Dubai or the far East, and those who would like to but can't because they don't have a visa or they can't afford the flights -- these are the people who will make up the numbers we need," said Ndem.
In theory, wholesale goods will be duty free inside Tinapa, though traders will have to pay taxes when they sell the goods outside. This would still be cheaper than flights and visas.
One thing that Tinapa already has going for it is the quality of the infrastructure. Designed by South African and Nigerian architects and built by the Nigerian arm of a German construction group, it is unlike anything else in Nigeria.
"It's like being in Europe. It's something every African can be proud of," said Peary Idornigie of Ecobank, one of Tinapa's financiers. He was on a private visit to see for himself.
"For the first time I feel proud to be associated with Africa and Nigeria," he said.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Eddie Evans