Why Mongolia Is Ahead of the Ecotourism Game

If your reason for travel is specifically tied to the concept of conserving the environment, then selecting your destination in terms of local ecotourism is a must. Find out why Mongolia is a country paving the way in this effort.

The landscape of Mongolia is so ever-changing and abundant with grasslands, mountains and deserts over the span of just a few kilometers, that it brings to mind: where am I really? Landlocked between Russia and China, the country is home to a little over three million people, out of which approximately 27% live in nomadic conditions. Even teenagers embrace this lifestyle. So if you’re wondering— what makes this a country where ecotourism is possible? Read below.

It’s one of the least dense countries in the world.

Ecotourism has been defined by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as ‘tourism in which the main motivation is the observation of nature, and is generally organized by small and locally owned businesses.’ Mongolia is made up of 28 cities, and its capital of Ulaanbaatar concentrates half of the country’s population, which explains why it’s considered one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. To put things into perspective, there are five people per square mile in Mongolia compared to the 92 residents per square mile in the US. Yes, that’s quite the difference.

The second and third largest cities in the country were founded in the late 70s and 80s, which led to a radical urban population growth that went from 27% of the population inhabiting cities in 1955 to 73% today. Aside from these highly dense cities, the country is mostly made up of vast and ample grasslands, also known as steppes. The result: miles and miles of untouched land.

With this in mind— you can almost guarantee coming into contact with some kind of nature related activity, ranging from horse riding, horse watching (a truly beautiful experience), sleeping in a yurt in the middle of a grassland or desert, to camel riding, climbing, and fishing. Additionally, the local communities have most control over the tourism industry, with even nomadic families welcoming tourists to their very own homes.

Its wildlife is diverse and free.

Travelers generally think of South African safaris when it comes to interacting with wildlife in its natural habitat, but Mongolia is actually an exemplary country in this area as well. Mongolia is home to a wide variety of wildlife, with a unique fauna and flora where most of the species are endemic to the region. During my visit, I was able to see eagles, camels, and many horses roaming free along the grasslands. A truly unbelievable sight. There is something very unique about seeing a herd of horses running free.

It heavily relies on trains and buses for domestic transportation.

As most of us know, cars, trains, trucks and planes can use a hefty amount of fuel. So if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, then the best method to travel domestically is using the bus or train over planes. Luckily, the country offers a reliable rail system called the Trans-Mongolian Railway which connects with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which offers routes to Russia and China.

Taking the train is a particularly convenient option over the bus, since the there are relatively few paved roads. As far as planes-- Mongolia has limited international air access, with only one international airport located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Not surprisingly, these limited transportation methods are also affecting the country’s tourism development with the largest tourist group coming from China, which is directly connected through the rail system. Other factors responsible for a lower tourism influx are the harsh and long winter periods. The advantage? Today is a good time to explore Mongolia in its raw nature. Note that the relatively higher-peak tourism periods are in June, July, and August.

It’s a historically nomadic culture.

Whether it has intentionally done so or not, Mongolia’s long-standing nomadic practices are the reason why the country stands as a leader in modern sustainability practices. Living in a yurt or ger as is locally referred, means sharing resources. Generally, entire extended families live in a plot of land and move from one location to another based on weather conditions (e.g. setting up a yurt camp in the lower plains during the winter, and higher plains during the summer).

The yurt camp that I stayed in with my mother and sister was made up of 6 large yurts and one outhouse (a pit latrine outdoor style bathroom, with a hole in the ground). The family that so kindly hosted us cooked meals in one large pot, such as stews and dumplings, and was shared amongst the whole family. Water was extracted from a few groundwater pumps. And the coolest thing of all-- the yurts are designed in such a way as to insulate the heat or cold, with its cylinder shape and pointed top allowing for an ideal flow of cool air during the summer.

Historically, two events had an impact on why the nomadic lifestyle still prevails in Mongolia: the 1911 independence from Chinese rule breaking ties from Chinese agrarianism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which brought Mongolia to a market-based economy, putting the livestock under the hands of private ownership rather than the state.

Our tour guide Ari Sune, a recent college graduate who speaks fluently in English described the engrained nomadic culture like this “Yes, in Mongolia we all accept the nomadic culture. I have friends who were born living like this, and it’s quite normal. It’s meant for the young and the old.”