Tourism authorities are eager to preserve and promote Mongolia’s cultural heritage to tourists both foreign and domestic. Indeed, after some 70 years of relative isolation under Soviet rule, the country’s exotic mix of Buddhism, Soviet interlude, nomadic traditions, shamanism and empire-building history form a culture that authorities are keen to exhibit. “It is crucial for us to analyse why people come to Mongolia and don’t just flock to China as we develop our tourism products: we should not just replicate projects from other countries,” D. Gantemur, the chairman of the Sustainable Tourism Development Centre, told OBG.

BRANDING: While Mongolia’s participation in the ITB Fair in Berlin as cultural partner in 2011 has aroused criticisms by tour operators seeking more public support than promotion, the emphasis on the country’s history and lifestyle is a key feature of the government’s unwritten strategy for the sector. The state has adopted a more proactive approach in seeking international recognition for its culture and history in recent years, just as it has sought to encourage private investment in cultural tourism products.

The 850th anniversary of national icon Chinggis Khan in 2012 coincided with the formation of a new Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism following elections in mid-2012. While large-scale development projects have led to criticism from non-governmental organisations, Mongolia is eager to blend its rich heritage and contemporary culture to create a strong brand.

REGISTER THE HERITAGE: Since joining the UNESCO convention on the protection of cultural heritage in 1992, and of intangible heritage in 2005, Mongolia has made growing efforts to seek international certification, particularly for intangible assets from rituals to traditional music. Nine practices have been ranked as intangible cultural heritage as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 2008, including Khöömei (overtone) singing and eagle hunting.

Meanwhile, two tangible sites have also been recognised by UNESCO. The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape, registered as a World Heritage site in 2004, is a 122,000 ha area some 320 km west of the capital that encompasses archaeological remains dating back to the 6th century. The site boasts ruins of the 8th century capital of the Uyghur Empire, Khar Balgas, as well as remnants of the Kharkhorin (Karakorum) capital of Chinggis Khan’s empire in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Two Buddhist monasteries were also located in the area: the first monastery in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu, on the site of the destroyed Ogedei’s palace, built from materials from the former capital and partly destroyed in the 1930s, and the Tuvkhun hermitage built on a 2600-metre mountain, which was completely destroyed under the Soviet regime. The Petroglyphic complexes of the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia were registered in 2011. With three rock art sites dating back to between 11,000 BC and 6000 BC, carvings reflect the gradual transition to a nomadic lifestyle based around horses, up to the period of Turkic rule in the 7th and 8th centuries. These remnants are seen as a unique depiction of prehistoric life in northern Asia.

Beyond international recognition, the government has in recent years placed more emphasis on preservation internally. The 2001 Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, amended in 2004, has sought to delineate protected zones covering sites of cultural importance. Alongside successive ministries (which have changed twice since 2004), the National Museum has played a more active role in organising field expeditions to document, preserve and protect different parts of the national heritage.

UNLOCKING POTENTIAL: Carving Mongolia into six major tourist zones, the ministry has focused particular attention on paleontological sites in the Gobi desert spanning the period from the Bronze Age to the Middle Palaeolithic, the birthplace of Chinggis Khan in the eastern part and diverse cultures of the estimated 16 ethnicities of the western regions. “Western Mongolia has been the least touched by modernity and is thus a draw for Western tourists,” Gantemur told OBG. The place of Buddhism in the national psyche and the tourist trail has also been rehabilitated in the two decades since the downfall of the Soviet system. Alongside the Erdene Zuu monastery in Karakorum, the Amarbayasgalant monastery in the north and the Gandantegchinlen Khiid in Ulaanbaatar feature on most tours even if they are not the key focus. While the history of religious oppression is evident, public and private efforts to rebuild monasteries are driven by religious concerns and efforts to re-establish the Buddhist trail.

COURTING THE TOURISTS: A survey conducted by the Tourism Department in 2005 already ranked Karakorum, the Gobi Desert with its paleontological remains, and the northern Khuvsgul lake as the most popular destinations outside Ulaanbaatar, particularly among tourists from Western Europe and Australia, with the ancient capital attracting some 70% of leisure tourists in 2011, according to the department. “Western tourists are very important for Mongolia because they do not just appreciate what they see, they come for the cultural experience as well,” Gantemur told OBG.

Two of the year’s largest festivals, lasting 10 days each, are Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar new year festival usually in February, and Naadam, a festival of the three “manly sports” of archery, wrestling and horse racing and Mongolia’s nomadic heritage in July. Local tourists dominate the first festival, while the second also attracts foreigners in the high season.

Although domestic tourists rarely employ tour operators’ services, their numbers have been growing in recent years, according to the National Tourism Organisation (MNTO), as Mongolians have added pilgrimages to major landmarks associated with Chinggis Khan to trips to visit their families in rural areas. New festivals have been launched by tour operators in the past few years, such as the Goat and Sheep Festival in July and Nomad’s Day in September.

REHABILITATION & INVESTMENT: The Arts Council of Mongolia (ACM) has launched a number of projects since 2005 to rehabilitate and rebuild a number of monasteries under its Cultural Heritage Programme, with the support of certain mining companies. The Choijin Lama Temple Museum in Ulaanbaatar was renovated in 2006 with backing from Xanadu Mines, for instance. In total, some 150 monasteries have been rebuilt since the 1990s, according to the ACM, with the majority aimed at supporting the revival of Buddhism.

Private investment has also catalysed in the past five years. Mongolian-owned Genco Tour Bureau, one of the few publicly listed tour operators, has been a key investor in cultural infrastructure. Investing an estimated $4.1m to build a 40-metre tall Chinggis Khan stainless steel statue and tourism complex some 50 km east of Ulaanbaatar in Tsonjin Boldog, Genco opened the site in 2008. A new project announced in 2012 will involve building a statue of Buddha close to the new airport currently under development. At the same time, the Tengri Group, backers of Juulchin World Tours and the Mongol Derby, launched a $2m project in 2008 to develop a “Mongol Khaans Theme Park” to showcase the history of Chinggis Khan’s empire-building, with the project expected to be completed by 2014.

Even larger projects are in the planning stages. The former Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, under the then-government, announced plans in 2010 to develop an enormous historical theme park around the 13th century capital of Kharkhorin.

While the site of the Orkhon Valley has attracted its share of investment, in smaller tourist complexes such as the Dream Land resort established by former sumo wrestler D. Dagvadorj, the ruins of the ancient city have mostly faded. Aiming to attract private investment of some $500m in redeveloping the city, the government has launched a $2m feasibility study still under way at the time of writing. The authorities have also commissioned the study of ancient texts to help frame the project’s plans and designs. While the project’s scope is yet to be fully determined, the government expects full construction to take roughly 15 years.

The authorities aim to invest some $148m in infrastructure, expected to include a domestic airport, for the project, while $350m in investment in buildings and construction will be required, either from public coffers or through concessions. Although still in the planning stages, the project has elicited concern on the part of associations and some tour operators. “We are concerned about the very large scope of the Kharkhorin planned project as it would interfere with an adjoining UNESCO world heritage site,” B. Indraa, the director of the governing board of the MNTO, told OBG.

The new government’s four-year action plan in September 2012 also mentions plans to establish a dinosaur museum and paleontological research centre complex in the Gobi. Detailed plans and the input from private investors will be available following the announcement of new policies in early 2013. Despite concerns by private operators that the scale of planned projects are too large, if the balance between new developments and tradition is maintained, Mongolia will build on its advantages to attract a growing tourism sector focused both on outdoor activities as well as a unique heritage.