Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Tourism Trade Show

Visitors Might Come To See Chingas Khaan
When my friend Anand, who is a part owner of Zaya's Guest House, asked me if I'd like to go to a Mongolian tourism trade show, I choked down my first response (sorry, I'm busy) in recognition of the fact that this, like everything else here, would be different than any other trade show I have ever attended.

Tourism in Mongolia is not considered to be among its largest industries, but is one that is still growing when larger industries—gold, copper, coal—have had notable ups and recently, downs. Mongolia is not Florida. It is not the Bahamas, or here in Asia, it is not Thailand. The severity of a winter that lasts for seven months (the average annual temperature in Ulaanbaatar is -1.5°C) is not a selling point for most people who, when they think about getting away from their normal, everyday life, do not consider a place that requires gloves thick enough to prevent texting for most of the year.

For Mongolians promoting tourism businesses there are other difficult problems to solve, starting with the question of how to appeal to visitors and to stand out from other competition. It's a marketing problem that requires business owners to send a message to foreign tourists, hoping that the message comes through as satisfying the interest that tourists have in Mongolia. Like most messages, this one has several hurdles to jump, the most obvious of which is the need for appropriate translation into another language. It's surprising how often seemingly simple step is taken for granted, and how regrettable the results can be. (Yellow stickers on the back of cars here announce Baby on Road.)

The biggest hurdle though is in matching the features of the tourist destination to the actual reasons that bring tourists to Mongolia. In the quantum mechanics of tourism everywhere, the tourist destination is altered to match the perceived expectations of the hypothetical visitor, and a marketing message is crafted to sell the new and improved destination. Created with one cultural filter, this message is received through another, much different filter. Most interesting to me here has been a chance to observe a nomadic herding culture that has mostly gone unchanged for centuries, but tourist destinations are not where I have found that experience. If there is a worse way to say "traditional Mongolian" than arranging gers in rows and columns, I haven't found it, but there are many other contenders. From the cultural filter of someone trying to maximize tourist interest, a karaoke bar in ger might seem like a practical way to appeal to a broader market—those who want to visit a ger, and those who want to drink vodka and sing loudly. It's just my opinion, but this is not something I would travel half way around the world to experience.

From the cultural filter of someone from an urban, western country that has over one hundred times Mongolia's population, much of its appeal is the low population density, made visible by vast stretches with no cities, towns, villages, or what we'd recognize as roads—but plenty of wide expanses of grassland, (or sometimes just desert,) hills, and mountains. That same fact makes travel here difficult and amenities for travelers spare. Promoters of Mongolia as a tourist destination must comb the positive from these facts and work to overcome some of the negative. Fortunately, the kind of person who considers Mongolia as a tourist destination may also be the kind of person who understands what is special here and who comes not in spite of the travel conditions but because of them.

The wild card is that everyone is different. Here are some tour businesses taking their best guess at what visitors have come to see.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

Tourism Trade Show

Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.

Chingas Khaan Wax Museum

Lambs, Contracts

Map, Mongolian Antiques

Buddhist Sculpture

Modern Nomads Hosts

Food Samples

Scale Model


Dancers, Audience

Tumen Ekh Ensemble

Sound Board, Singers

Fishing Supplies

Khovsgul Tour Guide

Scale Model

Anand, Signing

Scale Model, Ger Camp

Wholesale Souvenirs

Antique Dealer