Eternal Landscapes on championing gender equality and changing lives in Mongolia

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn

“Be part of a bigger travel philosophy” – that’s the call to action from Eternal Landscapes Mongolia, a social enterprise tour operator and 2024 Gender Equality Champion

This philosophy has women’s empowerment at its heart. The company runs life-changing training and mentorship programmes for local women, who make up their team of guides. 

Alongside this, they’re dedicated to creating a culturally sensitive, inclusive working environment that tackles toxic masculinity. 

Eternal Landscapes Mongolia founder Jessica Brooks collects Gender Equality Champion of the Year award from Dr Stroma Cole, who stands to her left.

At ITB Berlin in March, Eternal Landscapes collected the Gender Equality Champion of the Year Award for the Travel & Destinations category. “Applying, although it was a challenge, was an enjoyable process because it made me think about how much we have achieved over the years,” founder Jess Brooks told us.

We spoke with Jess for a deeper dive into the company’s philosophy, practices and impact. She was full of wisdom and inspiration for anyone wanting to follow their lead and pioneer equality in tourism. 

What does it mean to you and your team to be recognised as a Gender Equality Champion?

Well, it’s absolutely thrilling really. We’re a very small company without any investors, and since our establishment in 2010, the journey has often been challenging, particularly as none of us come from a business background. Despite this, we’ve survived as a business while following what we believe in. 

Winning the award shows that even if you’re small, it’s remarkable what you can achieve. We feel rewarded for what we’ve been doing. The philosophy we have at the core of the business, which has driven and motivated us from day one, has been acknowledged and valued.

When I told Turuu, my business partner, he said, “Really? But we’re small!” He understood how many other people had applied and couldn’t quite comprehend it. I’m taking the award out to Mongolia with me in May and it will sit in our office. I think that’s when the team will really start to realise what we’ve achieved! 

What prompted Eternal Landscapes to commit to gender equality?

When Turuu and I founded Eternal Landscapes, the tourism landscape was predominantly male, with male drivers commonly paired with male translators and guides. The guides were very much working the circuit. Often they were Western, or they came from diplomatic backgrounds or families with big business contacts, so they had been educated abroad.

I started thinking, why don’t we counterbalance this and employ female guides? What about Mongolian women who would like the opportunity to work in tourism? It doesn’t have to be for her career prospects – it can be for personal reasons, freedom, financial reasons, to explore their own country. 

So we embarked on this path and that was the start of our commitment to gender equality. It’s something we’ve always done. These initiatives have not only played a pivotal role in shaping the experiences we provide but have become fundamental cornerstones of our business. 

Three Mongolian children pose for a photo, all wearing hats and jackets.

We also support Mongolian women and communities through our accommodation contracts. We work across the country  in long-term partnerships with women or families that have daughters and who want to be supported by tourism. So it’s extended throughout our large community. 

Tell us about your training programme. Who is it for and what does it cover?

The programme is designed to be accessible to any Mongolian woman without a career or background in tourism, who’s interested in working in or being supported by the industry. It’s important to note that while not all our female team members may see a long-term future in tourism, their personal reasons for entering the field – such as gaining confidence, acquiring new skills, or achieving economic empowerment – are what truly matter.

As I mentioned before, we noticed a common pattern within the industry: either a ‘circuit’ of seasoned guides rotating between companies or a preference for Western leaders over local Mongolians. 

So we were motivated by the challenge of helping aspiring local women, without formal qualifications or experience, break into the tourism industry. This programme offers them a chance to come together, have fun and learn about Mongolia, ultimately empowering them with confidence to pursue careers in the industry. And we invite our male team members along too, because the idea is to learn from each other. 

At the moment, the programme is for women that we would then employ within our own business. But buoyed by the positive impact our programme has had on our female team members and our high retention rate, we’re now working to formalise and secure funding for our training approach. 

We’ve called the programme Chandmana Erdene – a very Buddhist, Mongolian name meaning ‘precious jewel’. It will establish a low-impact, community-based centre delivering an inspirational tourism training programme specifically for Mongolian women. We want to teach community and sustainability as part of it, expanding on what we already do, and turn the initiative into a  certification scheme. 

The women who come through the programme could work anywhere in the country within the industry and not just as guides – maybe they could set up a form of accommodation, for instance. 

Your mentorship programme is designed to create opportunities for your guides to inspire other women to achieve their goals. Can you give us some examples of who this has helped?

One notable example is Zumbee, who originally came from a herding family in Mongolia’s Middle Gobi region – a very remote environment and way of life. She started with us while studying to become a doctor in Ulaanbaatar. She joined not only for financial support but because she knew tourism would broaden her horizons, helping improve her English and enhance her life skills. 

There were significant challenges along the way. Zumbee had to balance full-time studies, family responsibilities and unexpectedly becoming a young mother. But she persevered in the tourism sector, despite criticism about her age and long-term career intentions. 

A smiling brunette woman in a purple sports jacket and headband sits cross legged on grass.

Her journey with us helped her develop resilience and determination, and after graduating, she moved to Sydney, Australia. She’s currently studying for a Master’s there. It illustrates how our mentorship programme supports women in overcoming challenges and achieving their aspirations. 

Zumbee knows that when she comes back to Mongolia and she’s finding her way again, she could immediately start work with us. So our mentorship program can be anything from just a few months, if it’s somebody who needs support for a short time, to an extended period. Everything we do is informal and flexible, because that’s what works for the Mongolian culture. 

Part of your work on gender equality includes creating jobs for men as drivers. Can you explain more about the purpose this serves in terms of equality and improving gender relations?

When I first started in tourism in Mongolia, all the drivers were male and they still are predominantly. That’s just because of the culture and society. A lot of them are older men from traditional backgrounds, what you would call quite stoic. They’re phenomenal men with incredible knowledge, but we noticed a lot of them were, and still are, impacted by toxic masculinity. 

Creating jobs for these older men alongside the younger women – quite a unique combination in Mongolia – and celebrating their knowledge helps address that toxic masculinity and the societal pressures they face. 

They often struggle with rigid gender expectations that value toughness and discourage vulnerability, which can affect their professional adaptability and personal wellbeing. We invited the drivers along to our training programme and it’s worked brilliantly well. The drivers educate our trip assistants, while the trip assistants help the drivers broaden their horizons. 

Group of Eternal Landscapes tour guides and drivers in Mongolia

We’ve noticed the men becoming softer in ways and know informally that for many, working with us has helped improve their relationship with their daughters. They’ve learned how to better connect with them and support their aspirations. 

Our inclusive employment practices also support these men in maintaining their dignity and social status in a rapidly changing society. This benefits individual drivers but also enhances the overall quality of our tours, fostering a more resilient, understanding, empathetic tourism industry.

Another reason we’d love to have a training centre is to provide employment to our drivers who can no longer do multi-day tours: being on the road for weeks, especially in Mongolia, is tough. But the idea is to also host guests at the centre, so these older drivers would be able to be transfer drivers. 

What advice would you give to other businesses who would want to follow your example? 

Don’t give up. Just don’t give up. Because there are many, many different ways you can achieve success. We’re small and we haven’t had the finances all the time to be able to do metrics and go down the formal route. But we’ve just believed in what we’re doing and we can see the impact of our work. 

When we made a mistake, we came back, we started again. You just have to be resilient, adaptable, flexible, but just do not give up. If you believe in something, you just keep at it. What you end up with might not be the result you had planned at the start, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is you followed your belief to some form of…well, not a conclusion because it never ends. Because if you have a business, you’re always growing, learning and adapting. 

This recognition as a Gender Equality Champion encourages us to keep pushing forward. 

If you’re feeling inspired by Jess’ work and words, visit the Eternal Landscapes website to read more about their philosophy and impactful small-group tours. 

To be the first to hear when applications for Gender Equality Champion of the Year 2025 open, sign up to our mailing list below or follow us on LinkedIn.

More Insights to Explore: