Coaching for export success: Helping Mongolia and other developing countries build sustainable tourism business

27 July 2011
ITC News


In Mongolia the Dutch Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries, is assisting local businesses in taking advantage of the country’s unique environmental and heritage assets to build profitable and sustainable tourism by delivering unique experiences to visitors.

When planning a foreign holiday, Mongolia is not the first country that comes to mind. This far-flung nation broke free from Soviet influence only about 20 years ago and is still in the process of establishing a market economy. The tourist season is only two-and-a-half months long and the weather is often extreme. The name of Genghis Khan, far and away the most famous Mongolian, doesn’t exactly suggest a warm welcome.

The other side of the coin is the special experience that awaits visitors to Mongolia. The country appeals to independently minded tourists looking for wide-open spaces and the simple life. They often find lodgings in the local community and head for remote places where they stay for weeks, or even months. Unfortunately they often spend as little money as possible, which is hardly conducive to economic development.

Living heritage

Damba Gantemur, the chairman of Mongolia’s Sustainable Tourism Development Center, recognizes that, until recently, tourism was a top-down industry with an inefficient value chain. Nonetheless, he sees a bright future ahead. ‘We’re a traditionally nomadic people’, he explains, ‘So we have a natural understanding of sustainability. This affects our daily lives on a basic, practical level. If this mind-set is adopted in tourism, both foreign visitors and their hosts will benefit.’ Better management structures and more transparency, he believes, will attract visitors from everywhere. ‘Mongolia is very different from the surrounding countries. Tourists don’t come here to see old buildings. This is a country of living heritage.’

He goes on to explain that, economically, Mongolia depends primarily on its natural resources. ‘We have mining of all kinds and produce a lot of cashmere wool. I think tourism can play a role in maintaining and strengthening herder communities. In our capital, Ulaanbaatar, the impact of urbanization has been strong, but in the summer many city dwellers answer the call of the steppes.’

It is indeed the call of the steppes, and of the forests, deserts, mountains and other unspoilt landscapes, plus the thousands of free-roaming horses, that give tourists the feeling they’re following in the footsteps of the great Genghis Khan. Mr. Gantemur understands all too well that this is a key selling point for tourism. ‘We have to preserve Mongolia’s cultural landscapes and attitudes, while also furthering sustainable consumption. Tourism should be a tool to empower economic sectors. For this to succeed, European tour operators need the assistance of local partners.’

Sustainable value chain

Mr. Gantemur himself is an important local partner, not only for individual tour operators, but also for organizations facilitating tourism as an export product. One of the latter is the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI), an agency of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To achieve sustainability in Mongolia’s tourism sector value chain, CBI organized a conference in Ulaanbaatar last November. ‘Initially, the willingness to work together was low,’ says Wim van Heumen, the programme manager for CBI’s Export Coaching Programme (ECP) for Tourism. ‘There was a lot of competition but Mongolia was ready for a change of culture. At our follow-up training course in Rotterdam, where we drew up an action plan, we welcomed 19 travel-related companies and 40 participants from the government and business support organizations.’

The ECP for Tourism is busy establishing a network of European and Mongolian tour operators, and increasingly also of individual travellers. A Memorandum of Understanding vowing to make tourism an entrepreneurial and vibrant sector was recently signed by all parties concerned. Mr. Van Heumen sees the memorandum as an important step in the right direction. ‘CBI is only there to support and facilitate. The sector itself must take the lead. The tour operators should address their government and present themselves jointly to the world. If they expect us to lead the way, the programme will simply not work.’ He is confident, however, that it will work. At its conclusion in 2014, he expects Mongolia to report additional income from EU tourism of between €1 and €1.5 million.

Mr. Van Heumen is proud of CBI’s track record in tourism. ‘Ninety-five per cent of the 44 countries that participated in the previous programme now do business regularly with tour operators in the Netherlands.’ For the new edition, the ECP can draw on the expertise of a dozen seasoned tourism professionals based in six European target markets. Earlier this year, when the participating tour operators came to the Netherlands for a week’s training, each participant was matched with an expert coach to teach them to work in a strategic and structured manner.

Building capacity

CBI created ECPs to strengthen the competitive position of exporters in developing countries in the European market in order to realize sustainable export. ECPs are focussed on building these companies’ capacity in terms of internal management and compliance to European Market Access Requirements. They are organized into modules geared to auditing and selecting eligible companies, developing action plans to improve their operation, offering assistance to strengthen their export capacity, providing sector-specific export marketing training, and supporting the participating companies in successfully entering European and regional markets. This is achieved by inviting the participants to take part in international trade fairs, buyer missions, business-to-business and other activities.

Divided into agriculture, consumer products, industry and services, ECPs have already facilitated entry into Europe’s markets for hundreds of companies from all over the world. The current ECP for Tourism has 36 participating countries, from Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Balkans. All of the 280 companies that qualified are small or medium sized (SMEs) and most are tour operators. The competitive position of these SME exporters is not only strengthened through direct ECP interventions. CBI offers a coherent and integrated approach, which includes improving the performance of trade support institutions to better serve SME exporters, advising European buy­ers on sourcing strategies and local governments on market opportunities, and voicing the effects of developments in trade policy on SMEs to policymakers in the North. These interventions are supported by offering market intelligence on European target markets.

Integrated programme

In fact, ITC and CBI have a lot in common. Both organizations aid developing countries to increase exports with a view to reducing poverty, and both stress that the development they promote must be sustainable. CBI has been budget holder of the Netherlands contribution to ITC for many years. CBI and ITC have been official partners since 2005. In 2009 they signed a new partnership agreement (NTFII) to carry out joint projects in Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, Yemen, Bangladesh and Uganda.

Dick de Man, CBI’s Deputy Managing Director, describes the four-year partnership as an integrated and coordinated programme. ‘CBI knows its way around the various market segments in Europe while ITC, as a global player, opens doors to the rest of the world and leads the implementation in NTFII. We constantly gear our activities to be complementary.’

Knowledge broker

Since its foundation in 1971, CBI has come a long way. As it enters its fifth decade, it has a staff of 60, a worldwide network of 250 experts and an order book until 2015 of €150 million. Taking an integrated approach to its role as knowledge broker, it ensures, where possible, that business support organizations and government bodies are included in its programmes. Thanks to CBI and organizations like it, there is a steady increase in the volume of products and services reaching the European Union from developing countries around the world.