By Julian Dierkes
In June, I visited Mongolia as a tourist for the first time. Well, sort of. On my 26th visit to Mongolia, I accompanied a tour to provide some insights into contemporary Mongolia to complement a Mongolian tour guide (who fortunately was very knowledgeable on wildlife in particular).
#Mongolia tour w/ @alumniubc & Worldwide Quest concludes, travelers on to relaxing extension.
9 provinces, 2,200km, many ???????????????? & other experiences.
For more photos, see https://t.co/KB6i45kd4t pic.twitter.com/ZQqfEGVwyV
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) 15. Juni 2019
This clearly was only a snippet of the tourism business, but I came away with some observations.
Obviously, visit Mongolia!
The Tourism Business
When the challenges that arise in a resource-rich economy are discussed, economic diversification is almost always mentioned as an urgent goal for Mongolia. Tourism is one of the industries that most analysts point to in order to capitalize on the incredible wealth that Mongolia has in its nature, but also to build on an international “brand” of being perceived as very remote, somewhat exotic.
Very often, these discussions eschew mass tourism as a target, but rather more high-end niche tourism, some kind of “eco-tourism” (whatever that may be).
Hurdles to the development of the industry are generally seen in infrastructure (flight connections and roads, but also accommodations, restaurants, etc.) and in the short duration of the tourist season (roughly June-August) that presents a challenge for human resources and infrastructure.
Previously, I had written about the possibility of tourism clusters, but also the rise of domestic tourism.
The Standard Tour
My sense of what the standard tour is, is the following: 9-12 days including visits to Kharkhorin and Gobi destinations. Transport either by minivans or Land Cruisers. Overnight at ger camps.
The ger camps are situated close to major tourist destinations (Kharkhorin with Erdene Zuu; the Flaming Cliffs or Khongor Dunes in the Gobi, etc.). There are very few activities around the ger camps other than the main site.
Ger camps used to be an accumulations of yurts with a main building/large yurt to serve meals in and side buildings for washrooms (sometimes including showers).
Now, many ger camps offer so-called “attached facilities”, i.e. a ger with an attached washroom, typically another, smaller ger, or other building placed between two gers and then divided in half to offer two washrooms. There is a central facility (typically a permanent structure, sometimes in the form of a large ger) that is used to serve meals. Meals are generally inoffensive, i.e. some salads, rice, meat.
The camps are typically summer-only, though there are a few that are trying to establish themselves as year-round destinations.
Over the last several years, camps have clearly attempted to raise standards, often hand-in-hand with raising prices.
Yet, in construction (especially the washrooms) and also staffing (typically by university students for the summer) these camps don’t quite meet expectations of a 3-star hotel, esp. by North Americans. Most Americans seem to expect a shower attached to their bedroom and that expectation is being met by many camps, but the bathrooms are often somewhat rickety. Electricity is typically availably but perhaps only through a single outlet.
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By contrast, these camps have lost much Mongolian flavour. The food is generally not Mongolian, even some of the elements of Mongolian summer meals that are more popular with many travellers (fresh milk/yoghurt, orum, etc.) are rare.
Though there are exceptions, camps appear to be bunched in certain location. The pattern that seems to be holding here as it does with other Mongolian businesses: if someone meets with success in a business others try to copy that success rather than understanding what might have made for this success and then seeking innovations for a similar success. That implies a great standardization of tours.
We first stopped in Amarbayasgalant which is not only a gorgeous valley, but also one of the more significant monasteries in Mongolia. It is generally not on the standard circuit because it is too far from other destinations and tour operators don’t respond to that distance by building a camp halfway between Amarbayasgalant and Kharkhorin, for example, but by ignoring it as a destination.
The camps are clustered around a few “attractions” that tend to be monasteries or unusual natural sights, but rarely focus on wonderful Mongolian natural settings.
Standard tours generally include long days of driving which leave travellers tired enough to need a rest upon arrival at a camp. As I mentioned, camps offer no experiences beyond the attraction that they are focused on. No maps for hikes, for example, or opportunities to milk cows/horses, ride horses, engage in archery, or hike.
Tours rarely stay for two nights in a single camp leading to an on-going feeling of a rush from one camp to the next. While the journey is often the destination in Mongolia and rides across the landscape can be surprisingly variable, the camps add very little to the experience.
Bumping along off-road can be quite exhausting leaving little energy to explore much else.
As I discussed above, destinations are somewhat standardized. It’s actually amazing to see the number of monasteries that have become destinations despite the nearly-complete destruction of religious institutions in the 1930s. But documentation of history is relatively sparse (I’m working on another post on Ulaanbaatar museums that touches on this), and without a guide, explanations do not really exist.
Nature is stunning almost everywhere and sights are often fascinating to see, but they can feel somewhat incidental to the tour.
Animals in the landscape are still a huge draw. Even when they are domesticated, herds of animals seemingly roaming by themselves (they are not, of course) through a fence-less landscape are a sight that I certainly do not tire off. There are a variety of birds and other animals to be seen, I got lucky on these two trips to have seen black-tailed gazelles and wild ass, though that is not guaranteed, of course.
I saw relatively little in the tour business that would allow this to be scaled up to become a more significant sector of the economy. To reach the goal of 1mio tourists, it is not only new flight connections into Ulaanbaatar that will be necessary, but the tourism business itself might have to become more attuned to market segmentation and more aware of the attraction that Mongolia undoubtedly presented.