Mongolia’s Wide Open Spaces Offer Endless Possibilities for Adventure

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I’ve just returned from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia as part of a collaborative effort to assess the country’s needs and next steps in developing sustainable adventure tourism. The experience left me with a strong sense that Mongolia is on the precipice of enormous popularity and potential – here’s why.

Mongolia has a rich heritage and plentiful natural resources to appeal to the adventure traveler, including a nomadic culture, Buddhist and traditional shamanic religious belief systems, vast pristine landscapes, and abundant wildlife. These attributes, if managed sustainably, have the potential to become sources of perpetual income for the people of Mongolia. 

Yet, the park management policies set up to protect the country’s communities, cultural heritage, and ecosystems are in need of sustainable finance and support to more rigorously enforce regulations. Without such protection, these resources will degrade and cease to be attractive to high value nature-based tourism. The risk is that this can lead to further degradation by mass tourism, which will not bring in the same long term revenue needed to finance these parks. This could also trigger a turn towards mining in or near parks as a way to generate income. Capitalizing on extractive industries is a worldwide challenge, but it is a particularly obvious risk in a destination that has significant mineral reserves like Mongolia.

© ATTA / The Nature Conservancy

I was invited to Mongolia by The Nature Conservancy as part of an interdisciplinary working group attempting to ensure the most culturally and environmentally sustainable outcomes for Mongolia’s parks. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is one of the four founding members of Enduring Earth, a unique collaborative partnership that also includes the World Wildlife Fund, Pew Charitable Trust, and Zomalab. Enduring Earth works to find, facilitate, and grow sources of sustainable finance to fund conservation initiatives across the globe. Their primary strategy is based on the implementation of a transparent financial mechanism called
Project Finance for Permanence, or PFP. The vision is broad and ambitious, and its execution is carefully managed by bringing together private and public sector partners to empower local communities in more than 20 countries – including Mongolia.

Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism is the main government partner collaborating with the Nature Conservancy on the “Eternal Mongolia” PFP initiative which, between them, will invest more than $198 million in funds dedicated to environmental protection and conservation over the next two decades. The government of Mongolia has agreed that a key source of new sustainable finance should come from the development of the adventure travel and nature-based tourism industry. 

“Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mongolia hosted over 577,000 tourists, contributing significantly to the country’s GDP with a total of US$ 607 million,” said Mongolia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, Mr. Bat-Erdene Bat-Ulzi. “We aspire to welcome one million tourists and accelerate the implementation of tourism-related programs under the declaration of the Visit Mongolia Years by the Government of Mongolia. Moving forward, we are fully prepared to collaborate with the ATTA for the development of nature-based adventure tourism.” 

Adventure travel represents a real opportunity to ensure money from tourism stays in-country. The adventure traveler leaves nearly 75% of their spend in the destination (compared to 15% or less from mass tourism). Because the average adventure traveler spends approximately  $3,000 per person, and due to the post-pandemic traveler’s continued desire for wide open, pristine spaces, according to Skift, adventure tourism is perfectly positioned to generate sustainable finance for both rural communities and national parks in Mongolia in a mutually-beneficial way. 

© ATTA / The Nature Conservancy

“Mongolia is the 18th largest country in the world, and most of it is truly off-grid – which is why it lends itself for true adventure travel. We have one of the few remaining travel frontiers, where much is yet to be discovered,” shared Jan Wigsten, the founder of 360° Mongolia. “Mongolia offers great landscapes, and pastoralist nomads who live scattered across the whole country. It is a people-centered destination. Following 30+ years of a transition toward a market-based economy and democracy, I wholeheartedly welcome ATTA and Enduring Earth to assist in negotiating our way forward.”

This enthusiasm was echoed by another adventure tour operator I spoke with, Jalsa Urubshurow. Urubshurow is the founder and CEO of Nomadic Expeditions and the Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia’s first eco-lodge. “It’s a pivotal time for Mongolia, as we balance welcoming an increasing number of adventure travelers with protecting our precious resources,” he said. “The potential for Mongolia to set a global example in sustainable, nature-based tourism is immense, and our team is excited to be part of this journey towards a harmonious and prosperous future for both the local communities and the environment.”

With this vision for the future in mind, my time in Mongolia was coordinated around meetings with tour operators, outdoor recreation and travel associations, filmmakers, and various tourism bodies from within the Mongolian government to discuss the next steps for strategizing Mongolia’s excellent adventure travel potential. All of our gatherings confirmed interest in an exciting collaboration to scale sustainable tourism with the help of ATTA and our ability to execute market activation.

Over the weekend – before our discussions and strategy meetings even began – I had the opportunity to experience a tantalizing taste of Mongolia’s backcountry in Khan Khentii National Park. The park is rumored to be the secret burial ground of Genghis Khan, and given its vast size, it would be hard to prove one way or another. Alaska-like in scale with many of the same species as Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, the experience of being deep in Mongolia’s wintery wilderness was nothing short of magical. One of the many highlights occurred in mid-day. As we were visiting an elk restoration project, we were halted in our tracks by the primal sound of howling wolves on a nearby mountainside. They remained hidden, but they were heard, creating a total sense of awe as we stood there amid gently falling snow. We finished the day sipping milk tea in a warm ger with a local family.

After nearly 20 years with ATTA, I can say that I am as excited as I have ever been about the possibilities surrounding a place as special as Mongolia, and I look forward to all the work we will do together to ensure a sustainable future for the country’s adventure tourism industry.

I would like to extend my deep gratitude and appreciation to those who warmly hosted and welcomed me to Mongolia: The Nature Conservancy’s Country Director in Mongolia, Gala Davaa; Khan Khentii’s Director General, Khashmargad “Khash”; Indraa Bold; and my co-traveler from Enduring Earth, Jon Miceler. Special thank you to Mongolia’s Minister of Environment and Tourism, The Nature Conservancy, the Mongolian Professional Tour Guides Association, and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which offered financial support to make these meetings possible.

© ATTA / The Nature Conservancy


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