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World tourists discover Mongolia
Michael Kitchen

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While Mongolia may not be at the top of your list of dream vacations, tourists and tour operators alike are beginning to warm to this vast and largely undeveloped nation. But some are also asking how far Mongolia should go to attract visitors.

In an effort to boost tourism, Mongolia declared 2003 the "Visit Mongolia" year.

But, as the National Mongolian History Museum's assistant director Areuntuya notes, the tourism campaign was not very successful because of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

"Last year there were a lot of problems about SARS. This year it will be okay, I think," he said.

So with the outbreak now over, Mongolia decided 2004 would be "Discover Mongolia" year. The campaign features the same logo from last year's failed "Visit Mongolia" effort.

Despite the efforts of the tourism board, Mongolia does not have much trouble attracting visitors eager to see its sweeping scenery and learn about the country that, during the 13th century, was the world's lone superpower.

The majority of travelers start in the capital Ulaanbaatar, where Ms. Areuntuya's museum is located.

For many travelers, Mongolia's epic unspoiled scenery is of even greater interest.

During the peak summer season, hundreds of tourists from across the world flock to Mongolia to watch herds of horses graze on wide grass plains flanked by snow-capped mountains. Or they take in the open silence of the Gobi Desert, home to camels and one of the world's largest concentrations of fossilized dinosaur bones.

Vardit Hertzel, a first-time visitor from Israel, describes a day she and her husband spent in the southern Mongolian countryside.

"One day for example, we started where they (had) found three dinosaurs. That was the morning," she recalls. "And then we had a walk in a river, [an] ice river in a canyon, and finished the day near dunes, sleeping near dunes."

Mongolian tour operators also want to lure adventure travelers with more exotic activities.

The U.S.-based tour group Khovsgol Lodge Management, for instance, offers a winter falconry excursion, in which Mongolian hunters guide visitors in using golden eagles to hunt the Siberian red fox.

The group's manager, Kent Madin, says the company is capitalizing on Mongolia's wilderness, which has an unspoiled beauty that has long since vanished in the West.

"Americans hear that Mongolia looks like Montana did 150 years ago, without the fences and without any real roads, and that's a real appeal," he said.

But Mr. Madin, who has lived off and on in this country for nearly a decade, also worries that the virgin lakes and forests may not stay that way much longer.

He says speculators, particularly from South Korea and Japan, are seeking to develop some of the most scenic spots into resorts for wealthy tourists.

"Right now I think they [the Mongolians] are at a crossroads," he says. "There are huge pressures, investment pressures to basically turn Mongolia into an 'outdoor wonderland' complete with jet-skis and very nice hotels."

Mr. Madin says that as an underdeveloped nation with large tourist potential, Mongolia has hard decisions to make.

One possibility is following the example of countries like Nepal, which attracts as many visitors as possible despite the effect this has on the environment and local culture.

But, he adds, this is not the only option.

"There's another, less chartered path, which is where Mongolians say 'This is our country and our culture, and we're going to preserve it.' And if that means not being able to go on cross-country road rallies at high speed, then go and do it someplace else," he says.

He cites the example of Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom that has strict annual limits on the number of tourists.

These restrictions, he says, give Bhutan a mystique and attraction as being unpolluted by mass tourism, and allows the Bhutanese to be selective about the kind of tourists they want in their country.

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