Boosted by passenger train, Chinese city aims to attract travelers to Mongolia

By Chu Daye in Erenhot Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/7 17:43:39

Border tourism gains steam


One important goal of the China-proposed "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative is facilitating the exchange of people. As the initiative gathers momentum, the city of Erenhot, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and a neighboring city on the other side of the China-Mongolia border are doing what they can to boost local and cross-border tourism.

Tourist train The Port arrives on April 24 at Erlian Railway Station in Erenhot, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photo: Chu Daye/GT



Women dressed in traditional Mongolian clothing greet tourists with a shot of liquor. Photo: Chu Daye/GT



The morning sun cast a golden ray that made Erlian Railway Station shimmer in the fresh, thin morning air of northern China on April 24.

A traveler surnamed Wang, in his 50s, a resident of Hohhot, capital of North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, arrived that day at the railway station in Erenhot, Inner Mongolia, on a special tourist train named The Port.

"My job is pretty hectic, and I don't have much time to look around, so The Port tourist train offers a good opportunity," Wang told the Global Times after downing a glass of liquor from a greeter dressed in traditional Mongolian garb.

The Hohhot railway bureau launched The Port to test out new methods of railway tourism in support of the China-proposed "One Belt and One Road" (B&R) initiative.

The train takes passengers on a three-day, 982-kilometer journey from Hohhot to Erenhot, where they can catch a bus across the border to Zamyn-Uud, a Mongolian city about five kilometers away.

Located 700 kilometers north of Beijing, Erenhot is China's foremost trade city with Mongolia, offering visitors a taste of grassland culture on the other side of the border.

"Today, The Port stops at Erlian Railway Station. But in the future, the station will just be one stop along the way. In the long run, we hope the train can reach [Mongolia's capital of] Ulan Bator, Irkutsk [Russia] and Moscow [capital of Russia], in answer to the call of the B&R initiative," a tourism product designer surnamed Song told the Global Times on April 24.

Raising the stakes

To develop Erenhot into an important port along the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor, the city has adopted border trade, processed goods, tourism and new energy as its pillar industries, Erenhot Mayor Tian Yong told the Global Times on April 27.

Officially called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the B&R initiative was proposed in 2013. In particular, the B&R initiative calls for establishing an economic corridor that better connects China, Mongolia and Russia.

Erenhot has embraced the initiative. According to Tian, a budget of 20 million yuan ($2.9 million) has been set aside in 2017 to attract local and nonlocal tour operators, as well as reward qualified local providers in the restaurant, accommodation and entertainment industries, plus herders who provide lodging to tourists.

Another 1.09 billion yuan will be invested in the city's travel services center, the scenic site at the country's border, a Sino-Mongolian equestrian center, and a parking lot for independent caravanning tourists.

The enthusiasm and resources pouring into the travel sector have been well received by the Mongolian side.

Tumenbayar Sandagdorj, chairman of the citizen's representative Khural of Mongolia's Dornogobi Province, was in Erenhot from April 23-24 supervising an exhibition of tourism products.

"We are living at a time when the people of the world want something that is pure and green and original, and we have that in Mongolia," the chairman said.

"Along with great natural resources, places of interest and endangered animal species that cannot be found elsewhere," the chairman said. "We also have the world's only surviving nomadic lifestyle and culture for tourists to experience."

On April 23, the Erenhot government signed an agreement with the government of Zamyn-Uud to develop a 32-square-kilometer cross-border tourism cooperation zone, within which tourists can move freely between the two countries, according to local news site elht.gov.cn.

Nursing a niche

However, officials will have to overcome several challenges to develop a robust tourist trade around the border.

According to a stricter count of tourists, about 4,000 Chinese visited Mongolia in 2016, down from 17,000 in 2015, when the Mongolian government altered the paperwork requirement for entering the country, according to the Erenhot tourism bureau. In comparison, about 30,000 tourists passed through Erenhot on their way to Mongolia in 2008.

Zhang Yingjie, head of Erenhot's tourism bureau, thinks the Mongolian side needs some sort of supply-side reform.

"Chinese tourists acutely feel the dearth of shopping options in Zamyn-Uud," Zhang told the Global Times on April 27. "And there is only a limited quantity of goods that they do have. At the small convenience stores, one or two visits by Chinese tour groups will empty the shelves. And the Mongolian shop managers don't replenish their stocks until the next day."

Moreover, the products that Chinese tourists buy tend to be from the EU, Japan and South Korea, Zhang noted. Not much of it is produced in Mongolia.

The number of people traveling to Erenhot grew at an average annual rate of 5.1 percent from 2011-15, according to a document Tian provided to the Global Times. In 2016, the city recorded 1.98 million visits, and its tourism revenue grew 8.6 percent to 4.4 billion yuan.

As more and more Chinese travel, competition among destinations has intensified, experts noted. Compared with other overseas destinations, a trip to Mongolia is no bargain.

"Tour packages to our city cost 3,000 yuan per person and include a five-day train trip," Zhang said. "In comparison, a boat trip to South Korea costs about the same, but lasts eight days. For about 4,000 yuan, tourists can go to Japan."

Erenhot has also had trouble appealing to the majority of Chinese tourists.

"Right now, it seems our only draw is affluent people who have seen much of the world but remain curious about the grasslands," Zhang noted.

The situation points to a mismatch in supply and demand because the vast swaths of Chinese tourists remain price-conscious and prefer to travel in tour groups, he said.

 

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