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Ecotourism Playing Key Role in Mongolia's Transition to Green Economy

The story looks at the role ecotourism is playing as Mongolia looks to transit to a greener economy.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia - Only a few hours' drive from Mongolia's capital Ulaaanbaatar, where the smokestacks of power plants darken the skyline and cars snarled in traffic honk day and night, there lies a tranquil paradise where such human hustle never intrudes.

Hustai National Park sprawls across hills that fold up from the earth and recede to a distant blue haze in a seemingly endless ripple of green landscape.

Amidst the undulating lands, hundreds of Przewalski horses - once extinct in the wild - roam free alongside reindeer and wolves, while birds of prey soar on updrafts looking for a chance to pounce on marmots and other small mammals.

This oasis of nature, part of the landscape across which Mongolian herders astride horses have driven their herds for thousands of years, is playing a central a central role in a drive to shift the world's fast-growing economy to a greener path.

Mongolia grew hard and fast, reaching double digits for long periods, on the back of mining its natural resources. This drove a boom in traffic in the capital and the construction of the coal-fired power plants that make Ulaanbaatar one of the world's most-polluted cities.

As Environment and Green Development Minister Sanjaasuren Oyun puts it, "We are now paying for the pollution that took place during our transition."

Now, however, Mongolia is taking a long, hard look at its policies. The government is set to pass a new green development strategy that includes an increased focus on renewable energy, sustainable mining and ecotourism.

"Like many developing nations, Mongolia is at the crossroads of a choice between a dirty, short-term development path and a far more sustainable long-term one," says UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. "Mongolia is choosing the sustainable path; that choice is to embrace a green economy pathway which may inspire other developing countries to take this route."
To highlight its commitment to the world, Mongolia played global host to World Environment Day in early June and officials say this is only the beginning.

"Environmental issues have been high on the priority agenda for Mongolia," says Mrs. Oyun. "I want to see us leapfrogging from a brown economy to a country that is an example of a green economy."
On World Environment Day, Mongolia was announced as one of would be one of the first countries in UNEP's Partnership for Action on the Green Economy (PAGE) - a major new initiative to assist the global transition to a green economy.

Hustai National Park, which currently attracts over 9,000 foreign visitors per year, serves as a model for the ecotourism that will play a crucial part in this new green strategy. Already, more money is being invested to ramp up the number of tourists nationwide.

Visitors to Hustai stay in yurts, the traditional round homes used by nomads as they moved their herd animals across the plains, and eat organic food that is sourced locally.

"In our camp we use solar power, and this is spreading over Mongolia; we are getting more eco step-by-step," says Tserendeleg Dashpurev, Deputy Director of Hustai National Park Trust. "We should develop tourism: it is a green economy and can develop green dollars."

One of the key attractions in Hustai is the Przewalski horse, which was reintroduced to the park on World Environment Day in 1992 from captive-bred Dutch stock after becoming extinct in its native land. Today, the horses prosper in the park and display all of their natural behaviours, including protecting their young from the snapping jaws of hungry wolves.

"In the 1960s, the last wild population of these horses went extinct," says D. Usukhjargal, the wildlife and wild horse biologist monitoring the horses. "In 1992, we transported 82 horses back and now there are over 280 living in the wild. Our plan is to reach a population of 500."

With such attractions, the park is also providing benefits to herders suffering from the negative effects of climate change.

Mongolia's 2.1 degree centigrade rise in temperature over the last 70 years has led to drier conditions and degradation of pasture land, placing pressure on traditional herder communities.

Four years ago, the double impact of a summer drought followed by fierce winter snows killed millions of livestock, bringing disaster upon many communities.

"Climate change is happening before our eyes: it is getting dryer every year and the winters are getting longer; our pastureland can't support as much livestock and the herders now realize animal husbandry is not the only way to live," says Mr. Dashpurev. "They have guest yurts, and can take in in paying tourists for a traditional experience. The trust also contributes to the cost of solar panels to provide power and buys produce from them."

For Mr. Dashpurev, there is no choice but to start looking to a greener economy that adapts to the changing conditions and does not contribute to further climate change through the mining and burning of such resources as coal.

"Promoting ecotourism is not just idealism," says Mr. Steiner. "According to a recent UNEP study, the tourism economy represents five per cent of world gross domestic product and contributes to six to seven per cent of total employment. Sustainable tourism, including ecotourism, is the fastest growing part of this market and thus makes not only environmental but social and economic sense."


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