Like any country transitioning to a free-market economy, Mongolia has its share of opportunities and challenges. Today, approximately half of the three million Mongolian population lives like their ancestors as nomads or semi-nomads in the countryside. The other half has migrated to the cities and villages, the vast majority to Ulaanbaatar the country’s capital. The flight of young workers to the urban areas, lured by dreams of a western lifestyle, has created labor shortages in the country’s traditional herding and agricultural sector and the absence of a cash-based economy in rural areas has put Mongolian nomads at a competitive disadvantage.
However, since its revolutionary days, Mongolia has opened its doors to thousands of foreign visitors, and tourism has become an important source of income and opportunities.
Dr. Jamsran Batbold, one of the pioneers in community-based and responsible tourism in Mongolia, not only recognized the challenges that Gun-Galuutthe nomadic community of his childhood was facing in a rapidly changing world, but also saw the benefits that a global economy could bring to the area.
Traditionally, places in Mongolia derive their name from landscape features such as rivers, mountains or lakes. Gun-Galuut means “deep lake with geese” and refers to an area on the Mongolian steppe, two hours’ drive east of Ulaanbaatar.
The third son of a nomadic family, Dr. Batbold spent his childhood summers roaming the steppe and hills of Gun-Galuut, watching large flocks of migratory birds seek refuge at the lake and take naps under the Mongolian Eternal Blue Sky. He and his siblings helped their father train his horses for the world-renowned annual Naadam Festivals. These Mongolian horse races are not for the faint-of-heart:
Hundreds of horses thunder over the vast open Mongolian steppe with their very young jockeys, many riding bare-back, emitting blood-curdling screams reminiscent of the Chinggis Khaan warrior hordes.
The Gun-Galuut of his childhood inspired Batbold to earn a PhD in conservation biology and in the late nineties he founded Selena Travel, Mongolia’s first tour operator to include community-based tourism in its program. By then, the Gun-Galuut nomad community was facing serious overgrazing and poaching problems and the absence of a cash-based local economy held many nomads in the grips of poverty. Moreover, the lake that inspired the name Gun-Galuut was rapidly disappearing. Probably as the result of climate change that brought changing rain patterns to the Mongolian steppe. Dr. Batbold understood that community-based tourism could be a potential source of income for the local nomads of Gun-Galuut as well as a strong motivation for environmental protection and conservation.
In 2003 the Gun-Galuut nomad community and Selena Travel persuaded the local soum government to create the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve (GGNR) and the Gun-Galuut Community Association (GGCA). Under Mongolian law, the board of the GGCA is made up of local nomads and its mandate is to manage and protect the ecosystems of GGNR, preserve the local nomad culture and develop community-based tourism.
Since its inception, the GGCA has successfully launched programs to keep poachers at bay and ensure healthy grazing opportunities for the livestock of the member nomad families., To protect the habitat of the reserve’s endangered birds and wildlife, it has built and repaired fences and bird outlooks and has assisted international teams of wildlife biologists with their research of the endangered Argali sheep that live in the hills of the reserve.
Selena Travel developed Steppe Nomads Camp, a traditional style eco-tourist ger camp in the tourist zone of the GGNR. Every summer, it hosts hundreds of travelers from all corners of the world who enjoy the famous Mongolian nomadic hospitality and unrivaled beauty of the reserve. The camp meets all its electricity needs with wind and solar energy, and offers job opportunities for the local nomads who provide horse, camel and fishing guiding services while the local nomad families keep the camp’s kitchen stocked with meat and dairy products from their livestock. Guests also have the opportunity to spend a few days with a nomad family to learn first-hand about the Mongolian nomadic culture.
Each year on 17-18 September, in cooperation with Selena Travel and the local government, the GGCA organizes Nomads’ Day in Gun-Galuut, a festival that celebrates the Mongolian nomadic heritage and where international and Mongolian tourists and local nomads jointly participate in traditional Mongolian nomadic customs, games, and sports. In 2009, Selena Travel received international recognition for initiating and supporting the Nomads’ Day festival when it was awarded the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards in the category of Best for Cultural Conservation.
The success of the GGNR is testimony to the time-honored flexibility of the Mongolian spirit. Dr. Batbold, the Selena Travel team, and the Gun Galuut nomad community dared to dream. They recognized the opportunities offered by a changing world and used them to not only create economic opportunities based on nomadic values and traditions for the local community, but also provide environmental stewardship to safeguard the natural resources for future generations.
"Gun-Galuut" Community Association: https://www.argalipark.com