Are domestic tourism data accurate?

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Domestic tourism peaks amid festivities. This year, the number of people traveling outside the city, especially to the awe-inspiring natural wonders of the country, has increased dramatically. However, it is not known exactly how many people travel domestically during the peak tourism season, where they go, how much damage they cause to the environment, or how much money they spend and circulate in the market. None of the relevant organizations have complete information or research on domestic tourism.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism, which determines the policies of the sector, estimated that 500,000 to 670,000 people traveled locally during this year’s Naadam. The ministry also reported that the number of foreign tourists was about 23,000 although the detailed figures are yet to be released. Based on this information, the number of domestic tourists was approximately 30 times higher than foreign tourists. In other words, more than 90 percent of this market is made up of domestic travelers. But we do not have a policy aimed at domestic tourism. International examples show that policies are developed based on the detailed determination of how much investment domestic tourism can bring to local areas and how much money each traveler spends.

The Road and Transport Development Center counted the number of cars that left the capital from July 9 to 17. According to the information released by the center, 117,710 vehicles passed through four checkpoints of Ulaanbaatar during the holiday. Based on the total number of cars that went from the capital to rural areas and assuming that there were approximately four people in each car, it can be calculated that about 500,000 people went to the countryside. This seems to be the basis of the number reported by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. 

However, it is doubtful whether this figure is realistic. Because everyone who leaves the capital may not have had the intention to travel. Some may be local people returning from a temporary business trip to the city.

On the other hand, not only residents of Ulaanbaatar travel. Citizens of other provinces also can travel to other places. Traveling doesn’t just mean going from the city to the countryside. In particular, tourism industry researchers say that the people of Gobi regions, such as Govi-Altai and Dundgovi provinces, visit rivers and watery places in summer, especially large lakes such as Khuvsgul, Buir and Uvs. Therefore, the actual number of domestic tourists may differ significantly from the official data released by the ministry.

In 2015, Khuvsgul Province was connected with Ulaanbaatar by a paved road. At that time, there was an “explosion” in domestic tourism and since then, thousands of people have been visiting the Khuvsgul Lake every year. Unfortunately, although seven years have passed since then, our country still cannot get an accurate estimation of the number of domestic travelers heading to such a major tourism hotspot. In addition to Khuvsgul, the number of tourists going to lakes such as Buir, Ulaagchiin Khar and Terkhiin Tsagaan is growing every year. It is also unclear when and how many people visit these places.

Only the security administration of the Khuvsgul Lake Nature Park, which is the biggest tourist attraction in the country that is visited by relatively large numbers of people every summer, is trying to count, register and monitor the number of tourists they receive. Last June, for instance, 94,355 domestic tourists and 8,000 foreign travelers, or over 102,000 people and over 18,000 vehicles, entered the park, according to the security administration. In order to make the registration more accurate, domestic citizens are charged to pay a fee of 300 MNT and foreign tourists a fee of 3,000 MNT to enter the strictly protected area. Since July 1, it has been possible to pay the entrance fee to the local administration using a QR code, making it easier for modern tourists who hardly carry around cash.

This is considered a good example, but people who traveled to Khuvsgul Province reported that “the checkpoint of the area does not work at night”. In other words, only people who entered during the day were registered and those who visited at night were not included in the total number of travelers.

More than two years have passed since Mongolia declared to become an “e-nation”, with goals and directions discussed at all levels, starting with the government and local governments. Hence, it should not be difficult to register or count domestic travelers now. In Mongolia, almost everyone carries a cellphone. According to the Ministry of Digital Development and Communications, the number of mobile phones in our country has exceeded the population and reached 4.3 million. About 3.4 million of them have smartphones. So, the number of domestic travelers can be recorded through both mobile phones and checkpoints. It will also allow authorities to find out where they go for vacation and travel. It is strange why people who are talking about transforming into an “e-nation” are not making use of such resources and opportunities.

On top of that, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism does not take significant measures related to the increase in the number of domestic travelers. It informed, “Work is being done to create 20 accommodations at tourist destinations every year. As of 2021, 23 campsites have been created nationwide. This year, we are working to build 17 more places with local participation.”

In reality, the locals are only responsible for putting up information or warning signs on the main travel routes and cleaning up garbage. While the number of travelers increased by thousands, the government did not do any significant work except for building a few campsites. Basically, it means that the work pace of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is not keeping up with the growing number of domestic tourists. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism had been practically stagnant in the past two years. During this period, the ministry and associated organizations could have solved and sorted out many of the problems in the tourism sector. However, despite not being able to solve underlying problems, the ministry said that “Mongolia will receive 400 million tourists” and was heavily mocked by people.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of reports about beautiful landscapes of Mongolia being destroyed due to the lack of planning, research and policy. During the Naadam holiday, there was almost no space to step on the shore of Khuvsgul Lake. People who went to lakes such as Terkhiin Tsagaan and Ulaagchiin Khar are complaining about how crowded the venue was and how people were throwing garbage everywhere.

In addition, citizens wrote on their social media accounts that people who visited Buir Lake were picking and cooking oysters, which are considered endangered and listed in the Red Book of Mongolia. Also, due to the lack of control, some people swim in freshwater lakes and pollute them by washing their clothes.

Moreover, the Gorkhi Terelj National Park is often covered with the garbage left by tourists. Between July 10 and 18, in particular, 198 tons of garbage were cleared in 65 shipments and volunteers had to be involved in cleaning up the garbage, according to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park Protection Administration.

It can be said that such confusion is connected to policymakers. The fact that there are no figures or surveys on domestic travelers so far is a reason to blame them. If the numbers were realistically calculated every year, it would be easier to evaluate the needs of travelers and implement the right policies. Moreover, toilets and other services for travelers can be built and made based on these figures. Experts say that this will also help create new tourism “products”, expand the market, increase competition and lower prices.

Misheel Lkhasuren