In Mongolia the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, is assisting local businesses in taking advantage of the country's unique environmental and heritage assets to build profitable and sustainable tourism by delivering unique experiences to visitors.
When planning a foreign holiday, Mongolia is not the first country that comes to mind. This far-flung nation broke free from Soviet influence only about 20 years ago and is still in the process of establishing a market economy. The tourist season is only two-and-a-half months long and the weather is often extreme. The name of Genghis Khan, far and away the most famous Mongolian, doesn't exactly suggest a warm welcome.
The other side of the coin is the special experience that awaits visitors to Mongolia. The country appeals to independently minded tourists looking for wide-open spaces and the simple life. They often find lodgings in the local community and head for remote places where they stay for weeks, or even months. Unfortunately they often spend as little money as possible, which is hardly conducive to economic development.
Damba Gantemur, the chairman of Mongolia's Sustainable Tourism Development Center, recognizes that, until recently, tourism was a top-down industry with an inefficient value chain. Nonetheless, he sees a bright future ahead. 'We're a traditionally nomadic people', he explains, 'So we have a natural understanding of sustainability. This affects our daily lives on a basic, practical level. If this mind-set is adopted in tourism, both foreign visitors and their hosts will benefit.' Better management structures and more transparency, he believes, will attract visitors from everywhere. 'Mongolia is very different from the surrounding countries. Tourists don't come here to see old buildings. This is a country of living heritage.'
He goes on to explain that, economically, Mongolia depends primarily on its natural resources. 'We have mining of all kinds and produce a lot of cashmere wool. I think tourism can play a role in maintaining and strengthening herder communities. In our capital, Ulaanbaatar, the impact of urbanization has been strong, but in the summer many city dwellers answer the call of the steppes.'
It is indeed the call of the steppes, and of the forests, deserts, mountains and other unspoilt landscapes, plus the thousands of free-roaming horses, that give tourists the feeling they're following in the footsteps of the great Genghis Khan. Mr. Gantemur understands all too well that this is a key selling point for tourism. 'We have to preserve Mongolia's cultural landscapes and attitudes, while also furthering sustainable consumption. Tourism should be a tool to empower economic sectors. For this to succeed, European tour operators need the assistance of local partners.'
Sustainable value chain
Mr. Gantemur himself is an important local partner, not only for individual tour operators, but also for organizations facilitating tourism as an export product. One of the latter is the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), an agency of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To achieve sustainability in Mongolia's tourism sector value chain, CBI organized a conference in Ulaanbaatar last November. 'Initially, the willingness to work together was low,' says Wire van Heumen, the programme manager for CBI's Export Coaching Programme (ECP) for Tourism. 'There was a lot of competition but Mongolia was ready for a change of culture. At our follow-up training course in Rotterdam, where we drew up an action plan, we welcomed 19 travel-related companies and 40 participants from the government and business support organizations.'
The ECP for Tourism is busy establishing a network of European and Mongolian tour operators, and increasingly also of individual travellers. A Memorandum of Understanding vowing to make tourism an entrepreneurial and vibrant sector was recently signed by all parties concerned. …