S.Bat-Erdene: Government must redefine its tourism promotion policy

S.Bat-Erdene: Government must redefine its tourism promotion policy

  • By Misheel   -   Feb 07,2022
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Opportunities to develop the tourism sector are abundant in Mongolia. However, due to the lack of qualified human resources in the sector, the country is not able to make the best out of these opportunities. In the following interview, S.Bat-Erdene, director of the Tourism Development Center under the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, delved into challenges facing the tourism industry and its potential solutions.

How many people are currently working in the tourism sector?

Today, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism employs about 190 people. However, only seven of them specialize in tourism. In fact, the Tourism Policy and Coordination Department of the ministry should have 12 specialists. The biggest problem in our industry is the lack of human resources. We have to invest in people in order to develop tourism in Mongolia. For 30 years since 1990, the tourism industry has been misunderstood as a travel company. That’s why the state policy is aimed at this. However, in the 21st century, countries are developing tourism very successfully. They are enlarging their countries by empowering their professionals and implementing the right policies and strategies through them. However, it is very difficult to say that our country has done any world-class work in the last 30 years. In the tourism industry, many people work from home for travel companies in Mongolia. There are large companies that receive some 10,000 tourists a year. However, such companies cooperate with subcontractors.

Amid the pandemic, not only tourism but every sector is facing difficulties, right?

It is estimated that 100 million people worldwide lost their jobs in tourism and services. People are losing their jobs in Mongolia as well. In particular, travel companies have come to a standstill. The situation of the COVID-19 pandemic poses a risk to the tourism industry. The industry has been stagnant for two years and professionals have “diverted” to different sectors. Moreover, tourism training has been abandoned. Students are advised to study marketing, management, economics, and mining rather than tourism.

Does that mean the number of students studying tourism has decreased?

The index of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in tourism has been abolished by the Minister of Education and Science. This means that higher education for tourism was eliminated from the education sector. University students take general education courses in their first two years and study their chosen major in the last two years of university. There are no tourism classes among available university courses. This sends a message to young people that they do not need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in tourism. This raises the question of who will manage major tourism projects in rural areas. For instance, the Asian Development Bank is implementing a tourism project in Khentii Province. But there are no professionals to work on it or manage it.

There are also many questions about how to bring the millions of tourists included in the government’s action plan to Mongolia, whether graduates of vocational training centers can redefine the policy and receive foreign and domestic tourists, and who will determine the country’s tourism policy and strategy in the future. Unless a tourism training policy is implemented, graduates of vocational training centers will not be able to manage the sector alone. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education and Science does not support tourism. Tourism is linked to all sectors. It can develop in conjunction with education, culture, transportation, construction and energy. In particular, in Ulaanbaatar, it is possible to attract tourists by constructing attractive buildings. Mongolians travel abroad and take pictures of beautiful buildings. But today, Mongolia does not have a captivating building that can be compared to those in developed countries. The Ministry of Roads and Transport Development needs to build quality roads. Travelers and tourists need to travel safely. About three to four families travel together to ensure safety. The country needs to ensure that families can travel peacefully even by themselves. Tourism should not be developed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism alone. The president of Mongolia has identified tourism as one of the three pillars of Mongolia’s development policy, so I believe that all ministries should contribute to this.

How many Mongolian universities and colleges used to enroll students in tourism courses in the past?

More than 10 universities and colleges used to train tourism professionals. Now the tourism class has been suspended. Scholars and teachers from the tourism industry submitted a request to the Ministry of Education and Science to re-establish this class, but it was not accepted. The ministry has set a goal to develop tourism, but it is destroying its personnel training system. In fact, young people who graduated in tourism abroad have come to Mongolia. As far as I know, there are 40 to 50 new graduates. However, the tourism industry is almost “bankrupt”, so they are forced to work in other sectors.

How would you describe the current development and level of our tourism industry?

Mongolians think of travel and tourism as one thing. In fact, they are two different concepts. Travel is the process of bringing tourists from abroad by tour operators. People say that traveling from Ulaanbaatar to Khuvsgul Lake is tourism. However, it would be considered tourism only if the road from Ulaanbaatar to Khuvsgul were comfortable. It is the nicest industry that gives people good energy. Tourism creates conditions for people to live happily. It is all about people being safe and happy. The country has implemented a policy only for foreign tourists. Therefore, the government must clearly redefine its tourism promotion policy.

There are reports that in some countries, the economy is recovering and the tourism industry is becoming profitable. Don’t we have that opportunity?

About 400 million to 500 million Chinese tourists travel abroad every year. China, meanwhile, has been able to attract domestic tourists amid the pandemic. They’re keeping the money that Chinese tourists used to spend abroad in their country. The world is dominated by Chinese tourists. Countries compete against each other for Chinese tourists and make products for them. However, China has developed and implemented a program to attract 400 million domestic tourists, leaving large sums of money at home.

Moreover, South Koreans have invited Hollywood and foreign celebrities to their country and made movies. Their film crews travel domestically, generating income for small and medium-sized businesses. The profits remain in the country. The world is “breathing” with their movies. However, we have only pursued a policy of attracting foreign tourists, so the domestic tourism business is at a standstill due to the border closure. In fact, 3.2 million people of Mongolia should be considered as tourists and policies should be implemented for them. If we had invested in them, developed domestic tourism and beautified our environment, the tourism industry would not have collapsed even with the pandemic. We had the opportunity to keep the outflow of cash at home like China. To say the least, our country should build a beautiful museum and know how many people will visit it. Local people who have visited a museum will not come again. Therefore, it is necessary to calculate how many people may visit from abroad. It must be done comprehensively.

Mongolian tour guides are often criticized for being unknowledgeable. What is your position on this?

There are excellent guides and tourism professionals in Mongolia. They can advertise the Mongolian ger very well, explain it in great detail, and amaze foreigners. Our skilled guides reject foreign tourists’ offers to pay 500 USD per day and demand 1,000 USD per day instead. They set their own tariffs but in return, they do their job very well, translating everything the tourists need. Most importantly, they know Mongolia very well, can explain their traditions and the spirit of our nation remarkably. This pleases foreigners and makes them excited about the culture. However, such personnel are rare. We will start promoting such talented professionals after Tsagaan Sar holiday. It is true that most guides are criticized. Of course, because there is no professional staff, foreign language students often work as tour guides.

This year, 1.8 billion MNT has been budgeted for developing tourism. The budget, which used to be 3.8 billion to 4 billion MNT, may have been reduced due to COVID-19. In 2016, the budget for our sector was 900 million MNT and was increased to 1.2 billion MNT in 2017 and 3 billion MNT in 2018. Mongolia’s tourism development budget is less than parliamentarians’ budget for their constituencies. As a result, people are fleeing from the tourism industry. This is one of the reasons for the shortage of human resources. Therefore, in order to implement the three pillars of Mongolia’s development policy, we must invest in human resources.

What is the Tourism Development Center doing to build the capacity of human resources?

We are working to hold the first tourism professiobals’ conference in March. This conference will focus on how to develop the sector and how to rehabilitate lost human resources through policy. We will discuss whether there is an opportunity to attract foreign language teachers to the tourism industry, ways to introduce tourism management in the service sector, and plan training for tour company guides. Good tour guides have been working in other sectors such as mining.

What can you do in the future to address the challenges of your industry?

Some people believe that the tourism sector should be merged with the service sector and that it is enough to have a vocational training center to train tourism professionals. Therefore, we have decided to establish a training center for tourism promotion services with a grant of 5 million USD from South Korea. We have bought land for the center. Its feasibility study has been approved. Construction is expected to begin this spring and be completed in the fall of 2023. We initiated this project, and it was supported by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. The center will have equipped halls for all types of tourism services. In particular, bartenders and waiters will be trained and receive a certificate upon completion. Moreover, a service hall will be established for traditional products. Imported goods will not be used. We have an opportunity to promote the taste of Mongolia. Human resources in the food sector are crucial for tourism. We need to develop people in all aspects.

In addition to developing human resources, what other opportunities are there to support the industry?

We are creating a new content called “Traditional Music in Nature”. The National Tourism Module has been developed in collaboration with 16 top teachers in the tourism industry. This will be taught at the training center. Then we will train one or two tourism specialists for each province. We are in talks with universities to offer a higher education course for tourism and the negotiation is going well. We have defined our policy. The one-year program has already been developed. Initially, it is planned to train 42 specialists from 21 provinces. Each entrant will have to write a thesis or dissertation. Then, they will work in their provinces to implement their dissertation. They will be also ordered to create a brand for their provinces to promote the tourism industry. In fact, 3.2 million citizens are tourists and human resources. Citizens can introduce their area, advertise it, and get paid for their services.

Misheel Lkhasuren