Is Mongolia wasting its tourism budget?

This year saw Mongolia taking the partner country position at ITB Berlin, the worlds largest tourism trade fair. With 175,000 visitors attending the fair, this was ITB Berlin’s biggest year yet. Many international news outlets covered Mongolia at the show, and Mongolia is hoping that this will stimulate tourism in a country that has seen some tough economic times recently.

Last year the Parliament of Mongolia budgeted $2.7 million dollars for promoting tourism, 5 times larger than the previous tourism budget. With a budget this large you would expect a good size increase in tourism. The results were disappointing however. 2014 saw a 6% decline of tourist visas compared with 2013, with the number of German tourists remaining nearly the same.

Perhaps global tourism was bad last year and Mongolia just had some bad luck? Not exactly. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, tourism in 2014 grew nearly 5% to a total of 1.1 billion international tourists.

So what is the explanation for this decline in tourism? Some blame infrastructure. Former Minister of Tourism Ts.Oyungerel stated last year she believes Mongolia tourism isn’t blooming because of the poor road conditions in the country.

I believe the real issue is information. For tourists traveling to Mongolia, the information about the country is very limited. Wikitravel.org, which has 300,000 daily visitors and has travel guides for many countries, is one place tourists can go for information about a country. Thailand’s entry, last years ITB Berlin partner country, is 28,000 words long. Mongolia’s in contrast is only 9,743 words.

How to get to Mongolia is not the problem, with many options for international plane and train tickets available online. Once you are here, however, is where the problem is. Mongolia.travel, the official tourism portal of Mongolia, gives a massive list of tour operators that offer various types of tours, but with an extremely poor interface.

Singapore, one of Wikitravel’s top destinations of 2015, has a crowd-sourced itinerary of a three day trip to the city, no travel company required. This great resources gives people an idea of how they can spend their vacation without having a dizzying list of companies and websites to deal with.

Tourists want information, not links to companies that just want their credit card for a very expensive guided tour. If Mongolia wants to increase tourism, they should make the country more accessible to tourists themselves. A list of museums in the city, cultural spots (like Zaisan monument), monasteries, or cultural shows would be great on the official Mongolian travel page. Yet these things don’t exist. It seems to me the government wants me to either pay for an expensive tour of things I may not want, or I just have to show up and figure it out. Neither are good options.

Mongolia is spending millions to sell Mongolia to nearly 200,000 tourists in Germany. Instead Mongolia could be courting international travel shows from various countries with huge followings. These shows have millions of visitors that could be exposed to the culture and beauty of the country for a relatively small investment to entice these shows here. A recent Travel Channel show “Booze Traveler” is a good example. Host Jack Maxwell drank his way around the country and at the same time showed some amazing footage of Mongolia. The Travel Channel has 92 million subscribers in the US. Cost to the Mongolia government? Free. Seems like a good investment to me.

Mongolia is doing a poor job selling the country. On the Mongolia.travel site under “Why Mongolia?”, the large title says, “There’s no place like Mongolia.” There is also no place like Singapore, and they get more tourists. Get with the program Mongolia. You have amazing beauty, culture, and a unique countryside. Sell that, not guided tours where people can ride a camel that knows you are a tourist.

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