Combatting overtourism in Mongolia

Overtourism is a term that hit the headlines in the summer of 2017 – look for articles on the internet by media and the travel industry on the consequences of tourism on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the effect of Airbnb on communities in Barcelona, the impact of cruise ship tourism to Venice and Dubrovnik. Even Iceland has expressed concerns.

Like most things in life, there are positives and negatives to tourism. The positives includes bringing economic empowerment to rural communities, women from more traditional backgrounds gaining independence through skills learnt, and education around critically endangered species and protection of their natural habitat.

One of the negatives of tourism is overtourism – occurring when there are too many visitors to a particular destination. There are actually few regulations managing the growth of tourism and tourist numbers have increased substantially with limited regulation – often creating more problems than benefits. Causes are a mix – on government levels as well as on a more local, individual level. Also on a business level with airlines, cruise ships and governments creating artificially cheap flights and cruises.

Each location impacted by overtourism has its own unique set of factors but when the quality of life for local residents is impacted, when historical artefacts are inundated with crowds, when the natural environment and wildlife of a location become degraded – these are all signs of overtourism. The fact that some locals oppose tourism numbers is not new, but the vehemence with which they protested is and this is what made the headlines in 2017.

In relation to Mongolia, not all aspects of overtourism apply – there’s (obviously) no cruise ship industry here and visitor numbers remain relatively low compared to other countries. However, even Mongolia suffers sometimes from its own form of overtourism – a rush of visitors in time for Naadam – the Festival of the Three Manly Sports with pressure put on services.

Although there needs to be regulation at a higher level, taking a more personal approach to responsible tourism can help to mitigate the negative effects of overtourism on a worldwide basis. We’re a micro-business – receiving around 100 guests per year. However, still have our own way of making sure our impact here in Mongolia is as beneficial as possible.

Promoting Low Season

Mongolia has long been thought of as a summer destination – the three main summer months of June, July and August are peak season in Mongolia – specifically Naadam in July. This is also when most tour operators scrabble to make their yearly profit.

However, we decided to do something different. We opted to promote low-season travel. We put time and effort into our research to enable us to put together itineraries that showcase the culture and uniqueness of Mongolia and the experiences it can provide – at anytime of year.

As part of our philosophy we offer a 15% discount to those looking to travel out of season. International flights are cheaper and as they don’t get booked up in advance, there’s more availability and flexibility. With a peak tourist season of barely three months, many Mongolians struggle to make ends meet by travelling and by us encouraging travel in the low season months we and our guests are helping to sustain local livelihoods.

Don’t Just Do The Highlights

Mongolia is a vast country and made up of so much more than just the sand dunes of the southern Gobi, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire or Khovsgol Nuur National Park – known as the Blue Peal by most tourist providers here.

However, we don’t necessarily go to the untouched places. We like to leave them at peace – away from the impact and imprint of tourism. Many are fragile places (especially environmentally) and can’t easily recover from large numbers of tourists. Instead, we promote the middle landscapes – the regions used by and lived in by local Mongolians (so they already have a ‘footprint’ so to speak) that can still showcase the way of life and the diversity of the country.

We consider the balance of going to those destinations that are popular, but we do all our own research and itinerary design and frequently highlight destinations or experiences that are not considered ‘best sellers.’

Supporting Local

At EL we’re a social enterprise. That means that we put a percentage of our profits back into Mongolia. As part of our philosophy, we also offer our free weekly training and development school for Mongolian women that want to work in tourism, we provide micro-loans to the rural families we work with with zero interest and we work with community based projects and accommodation providers.

Our style of tourism – working with and supporting a network of local partnerships in Mongolia – helps to to bring more value to the local people we work with as well as their businesses and communities – both urban and rural.

Smaller Group Size

Our maximum group size is a maximum of six which is refreshingly small for tourism in Mongolia. This is more responsible, it  helps us to manage our impact as a company and this smaller group size helps to avoid overtourism. It gives our guests a greater connection with local people and their way of life: a far more authentic experience. By keeping our group sizes small it also means we make less of an impact on people’s lives and homes. We tread more lightly.

In the future? For Mongolia, I would like to see each tour company (whether that be a single guide or a major international company) paying a yearly tax which goes towards helping to minimise any impact made by tourism in the country – such as erosion on trekking trails or discarded rubbish.

Until then, we must accept that tourist numbers are ever increasing and overoturism is not going away. That’s why here at EL we’re trying to be part of the overtourism solution, rather than part of the problem. I do believe that tourism can still be very much a force for good, and it is our responsibility as a company working in tourism here in Mongolia that local residents, habitats and wildlife benefit from our presence. While it won’t fix the issues associated with overtourism, it is a small step in the right direction. 

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