Tourism hit hard during the pandemic

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The tourism industry, which is identified in the government policy for sustainable development and expected to play a critical role in economic diversification, is nearly dying. The sector, which has been destroyed by the pandemic, has spent about 490 days (since Mongolia closed borders on March 1, 2020) waiting for support.

Now it becomes impossible to expect much from tourism. More than 90 percent of the 2,300 businesses directly or indirectly connected to the sector have closed. About 6.7 percent of the country’s workforce (88,700 people) have been laid off due to COVID-19.

In 2018, Mongolia received the largest number of tourists in its history, 570,000, and the government reported that it could double in the coming years. But now, this prediction has become a distant dream.

According to the World Tourism Organization, tourism has become more active due to the intensification of immunization and social and economic recovery. According to experts, it will take at least three to four years for the international smokeless industry to recover and return to normal. But in Mongolia, business people are predicting that it will take twice as long, maybe even longer.

The collapse of great expectations

Despite the closure of the border, which has made it impossible to receive foreign tourists, and most international flights have been canceled. Many see this as an opportunity to boost domestic tourism. Despite the economic downturn and the loss of thousands of jobs, experts estimate that at least half of the money Mongolians spend on tourism abroad (615 million USD in 2019) will go to provinces. This expectation was met in 2020, and provinces were overwhelmed by local tourists. In particular, it has provided real support to the economy and livelihoods of Khuvsgul, Bayan-Ulgii, Dundgovi, Arkhangai and Uvurkhangai provinces, which have many natural landmarks and tourist attractions. Therefore, Mongolian tourists were more optimistic about this summer. They have been calling for 2021 to be a year for domestic tourists to invest in the country. The challenge named “Summer without COVID-19” and immunization gave them even more hope.

But the situation has reversed and worsened. Resorts, tourist camps and hotels are among the 12 services that have been banned until August 31 due to the spread of the coronavirus. About 176 soums of 18 provinces have imposed curfews. Some provinces have decided not to accept tourists until autumn, if the situation improves. Provinces and soums that admit citizens according to certain criteria and procedures discriminate against people from other places, especially from Ulaanbaatar, and refuse to provide services. There have even been photos of travelers who were ridiculed and discriminated against by local residents posted on social media. Basically, a wall of misunderstanding and caution has been built between urban and provincial areas. Citizens have limited opportunities to travel and relax in the countryside. The great expectations for this summer has therefore dissipated.

Deaf government

It has been two years since COVID-19 started affecting Mongolia. More than eight months have passed since the first domestic infection was reported. However, during this time, the government has failed to take significant and effective measures to strengthen its businesses. It is not a lie to say that the tourism industry has been left behind.

Businesses have asked for help from all related authorities. They asked for a solution from the president, prime minister, Parliament speaker and lawmakers. But none cared enough to act. No official response was given. Tourism businesses are now emphasizing the need to regulate tourism services during a pandemic, rather than seeking loans and assistance.

Executive Head of the Mongolian Tourism Association D.Otgonbayar said in an interview, “Our association has developed a temporary regulation to regulate tourism services and submitted it to the prime minister last April. Due to the lack of such regulations, foreigners are refusing to travel to Mongolia. There are more than 40,000 foreign tourists who have temporarily suspended their travels since 2019.”

This is a real example of the fact that tourism in Mongolia has gone without any planning or risk management, and still does. It is unclear what measures will be taken to revive the sector and how to make up for the losses.

Officials say they will gradually open 12 of the currently banned services from July 4. As soon as the news came out, the federation asked the Ulaanbaatar mayor to open tourist camps and resorts near the city.

On July 4, the business community met with the Ulaanbaatar mayor and the Ulaanbaatar Tourism Department. It is proposed to forge a liability agreement to ensure strict adherence to the coronavirus prevention and infection control regime. The decision will not help revive a sector whose heart has stopped, but it will help some companies that are struggling to keep their employees on payroll. Travelers with families or groups of less than six people were proposed to follow the approved route and an infection control regimen, and use the resort, during the meeting. But it is unclear whether decision-makers will accept this.

Useless new airport

Policies and planning on how to ensure the safety of tourists, what criteria to follow and how to calculate and assess risks are crucial in the tourism industry during a pandemic. Countries around the world have developed plans and tactics to fight against the effects of the coronavirus and restore civil liberties as much as possible. However, Mongolia has not approved a temporary regulation to regulate tourism services, but has pursued a policy of restricting and closing everything. Officials have not addressed this priority issue, but large-scale construction projects are being ruthlessly politicized.

With the opening of the new airport in Khushig Valley, many officials noted that the new airport will resolve all problems in the sector. Some of them are even acting as though they built the new airport themselves.

The new Chinggis Khaan International Airport was launched last week, and MIAT made its first flight from Ulaanbaatar to Tokyo. In the future, 12 airlines are to operate flights at the airport. This is a historic development that took many years and is a major tourism infrastructure. But the tourism industry does not have the reserve left to applaud. They do not have the right or opportunity to receive foreign tourists, or even local travelers.

More than 80 countries, including France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Canada, Australia, Japan and Sweden, have announced that they will not accept Mongolians due to “high” risks. The world is beginning to move away from Mongolia, which supposedly had the world’s leading immunization coverage, but also lagged fare behind other countries in terms of deaths and infection per million people.

President U.Khurelsukh described the new Khushig Valley Airport as a “bridge connecting landlocked Mongolia to the world”, while businessmen in the sector worry whether they will ever operate again. Construction and infrastructure are important for tourism. However, this pandemic proved that the essential need of tourism is the safety of tourists and risk management. In order to develop tourism, this sector needs opportunities to operate without hindrances, not empty slogans.

Enkhnaranjav Tumurbaatar