Food tourism is the experience of culture on a plate. The one thing that no person can (nor wants to) live without it has broken out into the realm of tourism in a mushroom explosion of interest. Did you know that travellers are increasingly factoring food into their travel plans and spending up to a third of their travel budget on it? So incorporate food tourism into your destination marketing, be it the core element or supplementary. It seems the way to the traveller’s heart is also, and significantly, through the stomach and taste buds. As I write this, I’m already dreaming of distant aromas and memories.. and drooling.
Gastronomic, culinary or food tourism, whatever you choose to call it, is about the cultural magnetism of cooking, tasting, pairing, growing/producing, origin and symbolism, community and reverence of food. Its power is in the promise it holds for life-changing, immersive and memorable travel experiences.
Food tourism is any experience in which one learns about, appreciates and/or consumes food & drink that reflect the local, regional or national cuisine, heritage & culture.
Food tourism taps into the way modern travellers desire experiential travel, to participate in food-related activities with locals in-destination, eat what locals eat, learn what it means to them, and connect with them. Before we go lumping an entire nation’s culture into one food basket, it’s worth noting that many cultures would describe their national cuisines as composites of several distinct regional foods.
On the tiny Malaysian island of Penang alone, you could experience breakfast in 5 different ways depending on the historical/colonial influences involved: have fried radish cake synonymous with Chinese-Singaporean influences one morning, or the creamy rice Bahasa Malay dish, called Nasi Lemak the next. This opens the door to broad possibilities for focused destination marketing applicable to the areas you operate in. The food of your destination offers deep insights into the history of the people that live there, the social issues they have endured, and even the politics of a local community. The Egyption Tourism Authority cleverly observes that the culinary tourist is also a cultural tourist.
Food tells a story about the place & food tourism is about recognising & embracing that story as you taste your way through your travels.
So the stories you tell with food require a bit of investigation into your region to identify typical local food customs, rituals and produce. Then identify the companies, farms, restaurants, food and hospitality professionals or community members you could collaborate with to create holistic travel experiences of your chosen destination.
Among trends drawing interest are the farm-to-table, garden-to-table and ocean-to-table experiences, doing market trips accompanied by a skilled chef, sustainability tours to farms, foraging excursions or even participating in a harvest.
These are all authentic local experiences that pique the interest of modern travellers with their higher expendable incomes and cultural curiosity. As these experiences are governed by seasons, they’re naturally quite varied.
According to TrekkSoft, what food tourism means to DMC’s is that regions can attract more visitors throughout the year with differentiated value propositions – whatever foods are in season coincide with popular or seasonal activities and events of the region. Accompanying the food is the beverage. Your particular destination may feature existing trails, whether it’s exploring wine, distilleries of craft spirits, breweries, coffee or tea..
All these interests can be catered to by seasonality, festivals and events in your area. They are gateway experiences to your destination and they come built-in with the necessary partners to help you market the destination, namely: chefs; brewers; winemakers; artisanal food producers; farmers; food event organisers; as well as the increasingly ubiquitous food and travel writers and bloggers. The experts can help you guide and educate travellers on the various ingredients, shall we say, of the food culture of your destination.
…any creation or value proposition made to strengthen travel motivations centered on gastronomy should be underpinned by sustainability principles & practices & organized around an effective system of public-private cooperation.
Sustainability and responsible consumption are important to the modern traveller – they want to know that the impact they make on the environment they’re visiting is minimal and constructive. By the same token, they won’t want to support tourism where it’s either exploitative of nature or the local community. Locally produced, sourced and supported food and drink best represent local living after all and that’s what your offerings need to reflect. From Baby Boomers with their eclectic interest in traditional and fusion food experiences to Millennials with their trendy craft beer/beverage preferences, to family-oriented travellers interested in street food and communal dining, palates are diverse out there, and they’re sensitive.
A psycho-culinary profiling study done to identify ‘foodie’ types helps us narrow the field in our perpetual pursuit to #KnowThyClient. Adventurers, unlike me, might not think twice about munching on some barbequed grasshoppers or crunching through an ant-egg filled North-Eastern Thai omelette. Budget foodies simply enjoy street food where they can mix and mingle with the locals. Eclectic foodies like a little bit of this and a little of that.
Ambience foodies would fancy sensual wine and chocolate pairings in an atmospheric wine estate cave. Gourmet foodies surprisingly aren’t the most prominent group – a WTM study found that pictures of expensive-looking meals served by chefs in white uniform might put travellers off, thinking it would be too expensive for them.
Authentic foodies want the full dining experience of traditional food and the preparation rituals preceding it. Innovative foodies like a bit of fusion on their plate with particular interest in new food trends. Localists want to truly immerse themselves in the local food lifestyle.
Novices are inexperienced but willing to learn about weird, wonderful foreign flavours and customs. Organic foodies want absolutely no pesticides, additives etc. present in their food, and care deeply about where the food comes from.
Social foodies enjoy festivals and venues like pubs that invite socialising with locals and learning local food etiquette. Trendy foodies are dedicated followers of food fashion and pop culture. Vegan and vegetarian foodies want to extend their own lifestyle and dietary choices to the destinations they visit.
That’s quite a taste bud smorgasbord to educate, entertain, and tantalise.
The biggest trend in culinary travel today is the growing diversity of food tourist profiles, & how travel companies are adapting to that increasing segmentation.
A city, region or travel destination can also be profiled in terms of the segment they best represent or cater to. Selling an experience is, as always, about understanding your client and matching the destination and its food experiences accordingly. The interest among travellers is definitely there and it has begun to be documented. Consider for instance that a recent Melbourne food and wine festival pulled in an attendance of over 250,000 visitors. According to Fine Dining Lovers, a whopping 88.2% of survey respondents consider gastronomy a defining element of a travel destination’s brand image in contrast to 11.8% who considered it as playing a minor role. Prior perceptions play a significant role.
The usual suspects that influence traveller perceptions of food destinations are TV shows, celebrity chefs, cookery programmes, food and beverage bloggers, and social media.
We eat with our eyes too. That’s where food photography has gained a foothold in our imaginations as we’re are inundated with sumptuous images of mouthwatering food displays on such platforms as Instagram and Pinterest. Ever heard of ‘food porn’? It’s the global obsession with food observation (on TV, websites and blogs) with the #foodporn hashtag clocking up almost 75 million posts according to the last Venngage count. That’s a whole lot of exposure for your marketing to piggyback onto. The food journey starts at the research stage and continues during travel until the traveller has posted their last food travel pic at the end of their trip. There’s some delicious UGC for you to add to your marketing mix.
In fact, about 95% of American travellers desire unique food experiences, according to the World Food Travel Association. Just imagine how many more there are from other countries!
What bodes well for us is how varied the prospects are. There’s so much more to culinary tourism now than simply issuing clients with restaurant recommendations and dining guides.
We need to offer cookery lessons, cookbooks, kitchen gadgets, vacuum sealed goods as souvenirs and help with shipping purchases abroad, and culinary tours with expert tour guides, apart from the usual attractions, if we aim to address the importance of authenticity to culinary tourists. And the content we use to market and sell these experiences needs to be consistently engaging and persuasive across all channels.
Destinations must articulate a credible & authentic narrative of their food tourism offerings.
Food is busy happening in all sorts of incarnations everywhere, all year round. From wine festivals to strawberry picking time, craft beer to crab season, watermelon harvest to cheese festivals, a harvest here and a spring festival there. It’s not all about throwing tomatoes at each other in Spain or rolling cheddar wheels down a hill in Canada – those well-known sports remain popular but they’re getting a run for their money in food tourism with a slightly more sophisticated desire to understand how locals enjoy their food, and the significance of something as simple as a tea-drinking ritual.
After experiencing Thai food in Thailand, I’ve never been able to really replicate those experiences back home or anywhere else. It’s the way Thai people prepare their food, the quality of the ingredients, that super fresh watermelon juice sold cold on the beach, the simple way of cooking and the pride taken in pounding fresh spices from scratch, the reverence for the coconut and the quick heat of a skillfully wielded wok. The graceful movements and ingrained culinary wizardry. It’s just amazing to watch and even more so to taste those fragrant works of culinary art. I’ve got the recipe book and tried it out with some success but just enough to spark the memory of happy times in Thailand.
Tell me what you eat & I will tell you who you are.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Now’s a good time to think about the food stories your destinations have to tell: the controversy around the origin of Pisco and Peruvian ceviche; the double life of the Arabian camel, as beloved pet, then provider of milk and barbeque meat; the entire point behind mushy peas and blood sausage in the UK; why you shouldn’t leave your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl or get drunk before your host in Korea..
Even if I’ve never considered myself any kind of foodie, I’d still be fascinated by the ways in which a culture reveals itself through its mealtime rituals and spreads. And I’d be equally eager to feast, learn, share and make friends over a delectable portion of anything I don’t see on my plate everyday. Bon appetit.