There is one thing that most people visiting or living in Mongolia have to agree on: it is not the most common destination for foreigners. But most will also agree on how much of a pity that is, regarding how many incredible things the country has in store for those curious enough to go and visit it. Yet, the birthplace of the biggest emperor in history seems to not be able to fully take advantage of its wonderful landscapes, people and resources to attract a wider number of visitors.
While looking for information on the internet, I discovered that this subject has already been tackled many times – but that is probably because the question is genuinely interesting to address.
Mongolia pops up in every single list of “Most underrated countries in the world”, and people usually give you a weird or perplexed look when you tell them you are going to visit this country: “But why Mongolia ?” – which I found rather funny at first. But the more you learn about Why is Mongolia overlooked by travelers? the place, the more you start to wonder why it does not get all the attention it deserves; and all you want to tell people is to go and see it for themselves, and then they will understand “why Mongolia”.
One of the things that struck me the most here was how few Westerners I encountered in the capital, in the first few days of my stay. Coming from the most visited country in the world – France gets around 83 million visitors per year, more than its population of 66 million.
To say that I am used to seeing and talking to tourists is an understatement. In Mongolia however, I considered it to be a lot if I saw more than three or four foreigners a day. I have to admit that I expected a lot of things when coming to Mongolia, including the fact that there were not many tourists compared to other Asian countries like its neighbors Russia and China, or even Thailand or Malaysia, which receive a fair amount of visitors each year, but I did not think it would be that noticeable.
Then, another thing really surprised me after my first week and my visit to the National Museum of Mongolia. As I left the exhibition, I saw two huge groups of French tourists, docilely following their guide as they were about to enter the museum. And from that moment on and during the last three weeks, I kept hearing French in the streets and kept bumping into people from my home country, which left me to wonder: in the very small amount of people visiting Mongolia, why does it seem that so many of them come from France?
Having visited Iceland last year and encountered lots of French tourists as well, I was not too surprised to find that the number of documentaries on TV and reports in travel magazines about Iceland that we get at home had skyrocketed in the past few years. But apart from some extremely rare TV shows about travel which talk about Mongolia, there is nothing else that advertises the country in France. Now, the tourism data on Mongolia is quite unclear, as the World Bank estimates a total of 393,000 people visiting the country yearly, but a part of these visitors is believed to be Chinese construction workers coming to Mongolia on a tourist visa, which reduces even more the actual number of tourists.
However, a few things that restricted people from coming to Mongolia are set to change in the future. The very low amount of proper infrastructures for tourism is one of the major issues regarding tourism here and makes travelling in Mongolia quite expensive and almost impossible to do without a travel agency; and the fact that Chinggis Khaan Airport currently only has direct flights to and from nine locations in the world is perhaps another important thing to bear in mind when pondering the opening of the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky to the rest of the world.
But the new airport that is in construction at the moment and supposed to be completed next summer, 52 kilometers away from Ulaanbaatar, is set to be bigger than the current one and have more connections, which is likely to help boost tourism in Mongolia.
As I asked a large range of people here about their decision to visit Mongolia, I often got one similar answers: “I wanted something completely different.” Most travellers and volunteers coming here do so in order to find untouched, pristine nature, are attracted to the people of Mongolia, and are seeking an adventure that they are unlikely to forget any time soon. They are looking for one of the last places on earth that remained truly authentic.
Yet it cannot be denied that tourism also has its bad sides and can harm places, the environment and local populations: it had become very common to hear people disappointed to see how Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia have changed, mainly because of tourism.
Ibiza, in the Mediterranean Sea, is another gorgeous little island that yet nobody has really seen and paid attention to, obsessed with the party and alcohol reputation that it has now. So what can we wish for Mongolia? Well, perhaps it is already on the right path: it is often said that the country has to be “deserved”, as you do not visit it like any other touristic place in the world.
You need to be open, curious and up for an adventure, since most of the interest of Mongolia lies in its outdoors and its gorgeous sceneries. Be it regarding culture, friendly locals, spirituality, nature and the wildlife, Mongolia has a huge range of incredible experiences to offer. And even if the numbers are on the rise, the fact that it only attracts a small amount of people is maybe not too bad in the end, as it prevents the country from the drawbacks of mass tourism – and quality is better than quantity.