Guest Post by Tye Ebel
Tye Ebel is a member of the 2010/2011 cohort in the Master of Arts Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the University of British Columbia. While at the University of British Columbia, he focused heavily on sustainable tourism development and promotion, with a secondary focus on international trade. As the capstone requirement for his degree, Tye spent 10 weeks working at the Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, where, among other things, he produced a report on the state of sustainable tourism in the country.
An Overview of the Mongolian Tourism Industry and Obstacles to Maximizing Its Potential
The Mongolian tourism industry has undergone significant changes in the past few decades. Throughout the socialist period the industry was controlled by the state owned Juulchin, which catered almost exclusively to tourists from the former Soviet Bloc. Following the political transformation in the early 1990s, a variety of new industry stakeholders began to emerge while changes to the country’s immigration policy in 1998 saw a spike in international visitors. Western Europeans, North Americans, Japanese and Koreans quickly emerged as the primary leisure tourists and the government began to advocate a policy focusing on high quality and low volume. Meanwhile, numerous international development agencies began to address tourism, hoping to transform it into one of Mongolia’s major growth industries.
Unfortunately, despite attempts by countless hard-working individuals both in Mongolia and internationally, the tourism industry has failed to realize its potential. International recognition of Mongolia as an attractive tourism destination remains low and accurate data on tourist numbers, expenditures, expectations and impressions that could be crucial to improving the industry is lacking. Additionally, the country suffers from significant seasonality resulting in an influx of visitors during the summer months that place strain on the country’s infrastructure and a dearth of visitors during the cold winter months. This in turn increases the cost of tourism products and reduces the attractiveness of careers in tourism. As a result, the industry is suffering from a significant lack of well-trained human resources.
A unified effort by the industry’s stakeholders could significantly improve the country’s international recognition, the quality industry data, the degree of seasonality, and the shortfall in human resources. Sadly, there is a lack of communication and cooperation between the various public, semi-public, and private organizations that have been created to develop and promote the industry. The public sector, represented by the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism has focused most of its attention on supporting Mongolian participation in international trade conventions while advocating for the development of large, capital intensive tourism complexes. Although the ministry has attempted to better engage the private sector, it has not been overly successful. The publicly owned Mongolian National Tourism Center and a variety of private organizations, meanwhile, raise a mixture of public and private funds to pursue individual and often redundant projects. This inefficient duplicity of effort seems to be driven by a lack of communication and trust amongst stakeholders. The result has been that the industry lumbers forward without an efficient and unified plan or objective. At the same time, international development agencies such as USAID are beginning to distance themselves from the tourism industry as they focus more and more on the mining sector.
The situation is not entirely bleak though. Individual companies and small-scale development projects have made significant strides toward creating high value added products that promote environmental and socially sustainable tourism development. If the industry can build off of these success stories and unite behind a single brand image while reducing the duplicity of effort that currently holds it back, then it has real potential for significant, high value growth.