Responsible tourism: Western Mongolia tour, the Altai mountains & eagles
Responsible, sustainable or ethical travel - in recent years, it has developed many labels and is now a widely-used selling tool in the tourism industry. But, what does it mean? Although there is no real clear definition, it has to be more than ensuring that we collect all of our rubbish, asking before taking a photograph or being aware of the cultural norms. That’s what we should be automatically doing anyway.
Below are some of the elements of my responsible travel philosophy for our Altai and Eagles itinerary where we can show real evidence of our practise.
Difficult one this. This itinerary includes two domestic flights which adds significantly to your carbon footprint (which will be big enough having flown to Mongolia!). As part of my company philosophy I support local projects that between them provide greater opportunities and benefits for local communities within Mongolia. At the end of each year I make a financial donation to each project as well as other forms of support throughout the year (see below!). No. It doesn’t help with your carbon footprint but you can book knowing I’m aware of the impact is has and that we’re trying to do something positive about it. Every little helps surely?!
The disposal of rubbish is a major issue in Mongolia - especially with plastic. As part of my Responsible Travel ethos I pay a local Mongolian NGO (Mongolian Quilting Centre) to make fabric tote bags for our guests which we hand out for free as a welcome pack at the start of each trip. This is a souvenir for our guests but it also helps to support the project and helps us to cut down on the waste we produce. As part of your Altai and Eagles experience, you will also receive such a tote bag.
Also, you can book knowing that we finance our own three-day rubbish collection in a national park in Mongolia. Arranged through the local community and protected area rangers, we have been arranging this for the previous two years.
Unlike a majority of the larger tour companies, where small group travel can mean being in a group of up to 12-18 people, when I say small group travel this is what I mean. Our group size on this trip has been kept small - a maximum of six. This means that experiences during this itinerary become more personal and authentic for you - especially your stay with the Kazakh families such as the Sailaukhan or Baibolat family. We are not an overwhelming presence - on the local communities or the local environment.
During this experience you will at certain locations camp in tents. When we camp, where possible, we use only existing campsites, keep them small and, if required, we always ask permission of local families or park rangers. We carry all litter with us until we can dispose of it in a responsible manner, removing any litter left by others (to the best of our ability). We ensure that we leave our campsites in a better condition than we found them. Always.
Our itineraries and departures
My philosophy is to have a limited amount of departures for each of our itineraries. We also do not concentrate specifically on one area throughout the year.
Mongolia is a country of incredibly diverse yet fragile ecosystems. By limiting our presence in certain areas, we help to preserve and protect and help to avoid the area changing environmentally due to repeated and extended exposure to tourism.
Yes we visit areas such as Lake Khovsgol and Gorkhi Terelj where tourism has become more concentrated in Mongolia but we also offer itineraries that stretch to areas that are not necessarily considered ‘highlights’ by other tour companies or the guidebooks such as the community of Bugat on this trip. Wherever we visit, supporting local is at the heart of what we do and at the centre of each experience we offer. By not focusing on one area, it also means that we help to support communities that might not otherwise benefit from the tourism industry.
Our trips also focus on 21st Century Mongolia - yes, you’ll get to experience the traditional way of life but at the same time gain an overview as what it means to be Mongolian in 21st Century Mongolia - the eagles hunter’s you will stay with will have mobile phones. It doesn’t mean their way of life is dying out - just that it’s adapting. The people we work with are ‘real’ people. Not tourism professionals. You’ll meet people from Ulaanbaatar,you’ll meet herders, you’ll meet Mongolians that live in the provincial centres as well as the smaller town and rural communities. They are all Mongolians. Take time out to meet them.
From my perspective, non-Mongolians often get very caught up in notions of authenticity when it comes to Mongolian events including festivals such as the Eagle Festival which you will experience on this trip. Many westerners would understandably argue that the fairly newly introduced Eagle Festival is not an authentic Kazakh or Mongolia festival, as opposed to a Naadam (the traditional sports festival), and dismiss it. However, all traditions were invented and these festivals are a really positive way to encourage local and cottage industries in Mongolia. These rural festivals are a celebration of local community, networking and collaboration to ensure a better future for the region and its herding community.
My company is not a ‘world specialist’; we concentrate on the country we know and love – Mongolia. We research, design and operate each itinerary ourselves and do not source our itineraries from other agents.
Supporting local is at the heart of what we do. Part of this philosophy is that we used ger accommodation provided by the Mongolian families such as the Sailaukhan family at Sagsai. However, at no point have we ever rocked up and demanded accommodation. Our relationships with the families we work with are genuine - forged over time and with plenty of tea.
Families offer ger accommodation to help supplement their income. Most are small rural businesses providing extra accommodation. Some accommodation is offered by herders, some is offered by ‘retired’ herders who no longer migrate, some by families that live in small town communities and some by families that own small ger camp businesses. By using this form of accommodation it provides you with a more genuine insight in to the real way of life in Mongolia and it benefits the local communities through which we are traveling.
However, these are real people with real lives to lead and at no point do we ask the families to change their way of life for our/your own benefit or comfort. If they don’t have a shower, neither will you! (Don’t panic!…see below!). We ask our guests to try and embrace (!) and enjoy any differences that they come across in Mongolia. Experiencing the differences is all part of any trip and makes it a more authentic and positive vacation for you and a more respectful and enjoyable experience for the locals as well.
One example of this is our use of the local town shower houses. Very few families have access to running water from a tap. We do as the locals do and use the local town shower houses such as the one in Ulgii. They’re a great way to meet members of the local community but it also means we do not put too much pressure on local resources. In the words of author Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World – ‘Compared to the difficulty of daily life for the herders, living permanently in those areas, ours were only the smallest of irritations.’
We have a photography philosophy that we employ on all our trips. At the back of every ger is the family khoimor – the family altar. Very few families have a camera. Some have cameras on their phones but no way to print off the images and therefore few families have photographs. I have a rule that if you promise a photo then you must send the photo. I make it easy for you - email the image of the photo to me once you get home and I will print if off and will make sure the photos are delivered. Look in the gers of the eagle hunter Janatkhan and you’ll see a great image of him and his eagle that we presented to him last year!
Reviews of Western Mongolia tour, the Altai mountains & eagles
You can trust Responsible Travel reviews because, unlike many other schemes, reviews can ONLY be written by people who we have verified have been on the vacations.
I am reborn! Simply the best vacation I have ever been on
Some great stories to tell the grandchildren. Would recommend to a friend
It was OK
A bit disappointing really
Reviewed on 02 Nov 2015 by Sylvia Liu
1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your vacation?
Living in with the family in three Gers. This was special and something that I will always remember.
2. What tips would you give other travelers booking this vacation?
Have an open mind and bring ear plugs.
3. Did you feel that your vacation benefited local people, reduced environmental impacts or supported conservation?
4. Finally, how would you rate your vacation overall?