The great outdoors: An intriguing combination of ancient festivals and extreme sports

Long established as an adventure tourism destination, Mongolia is making a more concerted push to attract travellers seeking sporting activities. The new government is promoting more natural niches like bird-watching and hunting, as well as traditional festivals celebrating activities such as the “three manly sports” of wrestling, archery and horse racing. At the same time, tour operators are seeking to create a range of other niches from fishing to horseback riding in an effort to capitalise on growing air connections with regional and global destinations.

While recent private investments have by and large drawn a local crowd, a calendar of outdoors events are attracting an ever-increasing number of adventure tourists, both domestic and international. The plethora of outdoor sports including rafting, kayaking, fishing, horseback riding and dog sledding, among others, contribute to Mongolia’s unique appeal. The emergence of golf infrastructure is increasingly attracting businessmen and leisure tourists alike.

TRADITIONAL SPORTS: Mongolia’s festival calendar is dominated by activities that focus on the great outdoors. The best established of these, the three-day Naadam festival which starts on July 11, is a nationwide celebration of the “three manly sports”.

The most-widely attended festival of the year, Naadam coincides with the anniversary of the 1921 revolution and has drawn a growing foreign attendance given its prime spot at the height of the tourist season. As one of the three feature games during the festival, archery is enshrined deep in Mongolian culture and folklore. Indeed, an archer born in the year of the tiger, which is regarded as a key symbol of strength and marksmanship in Mongolian culture, typically leads the opening ceremony of the festival. Indeed, as many as 100 horses and 1000 wrestlers and archers compete in the largest event in the Ulaanbaatar area, which attracts a considerable number of visitors from across Mongolia, Europe, North America, Australia and East Asia.

Tour operators have also supported a number of other recent festivities, inlcuding the Golden Eagle Festival centred on Bayan Ulgii in early October, backed by Nomadic Expeditions, the Ice Festivals in Khuvsgul and Ulaanbaatar in early March and the Ice Skating Marathon in Khuvsgul in late February, organised by Juulchin Tourism Corp. and Active Adventure Tours, for instance.

CONTEMPORARY OFFERINGS: Beyond traditional sports, the calendar has become filled with events focused on more contemporary activities such as mountain biking, running, fishing, hiking and polo.

With a expansive and diverse geography, the new government is taking steps to encourage the spread of tourism to more remote sites and beyond the established high season. For instance, operators in South Gobi have created and marketed a camel festival immediately following the ice festival in March to capitalise on arrivals early in the year.

Fishing and bird watching meanwhile are seen as potential new niches, particularly for European tourists. Indeed, this is particularly so given there are some 60 species of fish (30 of which are fishable) in rivers and lakes across the north and west of the country. This focus, expected to generate more demand for small eco-lodges around the country, is needed to balance Mongolia’s reputation as a destination for adventure tourism.

Meanwhile hiking and hunting are activities that are practical between the period of April and early November, and could certainly encourage more arrivals during these low-season months.

ENDURANCE TESTS: A growing number of motor rallies destined for Ulaanbaatar has aimed to play on the country’s renowned remote location to draw adventure tourists. The first such event established in 2004, the Mongol Rally from the UK to Mongolia every summer with cars of less than 1200 cc, remains the most popular, with approximately 300 teams participating, although the number of races has grown, with the launch of the Mongolia Charity Rally from London in 2008.

While such events attract in large part motor enthusiasts and backpackers, tour operators have sought to cater to all types of outdoor activities. Marathons have been particularly successful with the Gobi Challenge Marathon in early July, the Gobi Marathon in late September and the Mongolia Sunrise to Sunset 100 km ultra-marathon along Lake Khuvsgul in July for instance.

Famous for its horses, Mongolia also attracts a loyal following of equestrians. One of the key events is the world’s longest horse race, the Mongol Derby. The race is organised by Tengri Group in August, covers around 1000 km, involves around 35 riders, and is aimed at recreating Chinggis Khan’s extensive postal system. Another event is the Rostaing Challenge that takes place in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Organised by a French tour operator, the gruelling six-day race involves horseback riding, running, biking and whitewater rafting.

A natural by-product of the strong riding culture, polo has become increasingly popular with Mongolians and foreigners alike in the past decade. The pioneer has been Chinggis Khan Polo Club, which was established in 1995 near Kharkhorin in the Orkhon Valley, around 400 km from the capital, by German filmmaker Christopher Giercke.

PAR PUTT: The opening of Mongolia’s third golf course at the Sky Resort in September 2012 reflects the growing popularity of the sport amongst more affluent Mongolians and other north Asians in particular. The first two golf courses, on partly artificial greens – the Ulaanbaatar Golf Range (20 km from the capital) and the 18-hole Chinggis Khaan Golf Club in Terelj (50 km away), developed by a South Korean investor – opened in 2007. The sport has attracted some Korean and Japanese tourists who are particularly drawn by green and rental fees as low as MNT60,000 ($43). There is also a large local following, but the clubs are especially keen to target golfers from other markets such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The golfing season lasts from around April to November, with the Baldorj Cup at the Chinggis Khan Club the largest event early in the season.

The Tiara Resort, which is part-backed by the Dutch government, is the largest accommodation option close to the two clubs, although it remains relatively small, with as few as 20 gers (tents) and 20 hotel rooms at the time of writing.

Private investment has begun to flow further toward large projects, however. Genco Tour Bureau, developer of the Chinggis Khan Statue complex nearby, is investing MNT2.8bn ($2m) in a new spa and golf resort, which will also include an artificial lake, 56 km from Ulaanbaatar near the Khentii Mountains. Although the project has been delayed, probably to some point in 2013, Genco aims to manage the 80-room property itself.

Earlier to the market, the Sky Resort opened its 18-hole course in the Khurkheree valley near Ulaanbaatar in September 2012. Developed by MCS Group for some $30m, the resort has operated the first downhill ski resort with three runs since November 2009, fuelled by artificial snow canons given Mongolia’s relatively dry climate. With the first full-grass golf course of the country, the resort expects to attract significant numbers of golfers from north Asia and Hong Kong. Thus far, the ski resort’s clientele has been mainly domestic given low foreign arrivals during the ski season of November to April.

While the state has focused much more on promoting culture in recent years, a busy calendar of activities has been established by private and nongovernmental efforts. Regular trips by the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar for hunting has not gone unnoticed by the incoming government, which aims to harness Mongolia’s outdoors potential. A careful balance will ultimately need to be struck between development and conservation in the long run, particularly given the rapid rate of economic growth.

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The Report: Mongolia 2013

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