Food tourism is one of the tastiest top travel trends. But what lies behind the headlines? Let's take a look into what culinary tourism involves, why it matters and what it can offer you.
Food Tourism: The Natural Combination of Food and Travel
Food and travel have long been interlinked. Whether flying in first or riding a donkey, everyone's gotta eat. But food tourism refers to the deliberate search from travellers to delve into the culture of the places they visit through food.
It's not just about having a good meal. It's about connecting food with the place itself.
What is Food Tourism?
Erik Wolf, Executive Director at the World Food Travel Association, defines food tourism thus:
"Food tourism is the act of traveling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place."
In other words, it's not just about fine dining. It's not all about Michelin stars or fancy soufflés (although it can be.) As I see it, it's talking to each other more through taste.
The Rise in Food Tourism: Numbers Speak
The Food Travel Monitor (a global study by the World Food Travel Association) found that 95% of American travellers are interested "in some kind of unique food experience" and that one third of their travel budget is spent on food.
Why is Culinary Tourism so Popular?
Do we even need to ask? Oh, alright then, let's have a look at it.
Culinary tourism is popular because it tastes good and feels good, not only in the moment but to the soul.
Breaking bread and sharing a meal is a universal expression of hospitality and welcome across the world. To understand someone else's customs is to start to understand their perspective.
Food traditions developed during a time when people had to follow sustainable practices: flying food across the world and tipping pollution into the nearby river just didn't work.
Today's travellers have more time, money and experience than before. They have already tried more flavours at home and are now seeking something new, authentic, social and sustainable.
The Benefits of Food Tourism
- Enjoyable for those who travel
- Can help revive rural areas
- Supports local communities and businesses
- Attracts the kinds of people who respect local customs and are willing to spend more.
Whether you're a traveller looking to expand your gastronomic knowledge (aka eating well) or a business looking to tap into this new travel trend, let me help.
Here are some great examples of food tourism done well and some top tips for how to combine food and travel to make both even better than before.
Types of Food Tourism
1- Cooking Classes
Cooking classes come in many shapes and forms, from in-depth academies to the dabble-and-dip kind (largely watching someone else cook while you sip wine and chat.)
I am a passionate supporter of this kind of culinary tourism.
Why? Because cooking classes are fun, tasty and have the following benefits.
What cooking classes offer
- You learn to cook (obviously)
- You learn more about a place through its food
- You learn more about a place through its people. Most cooking classes are run by locals and you spend several hours in a relaxed setting, chatting and getting to know each other. This kind of unforced local interaction is priceless.
- You meet other people! It's a great way to meet other travellers and pick up travel tips. It's ideal for solo travellers but even families and couples can benefit from someone else to talk to every once in a while!
- You get to eat, drink and often be merry!
- You go home armed with the knowledge to bring your travel experiences back to life again. Instead of just a snow globe, you can recreate the sight, sound and smells of a place and help keep its traditions alive.
2 - Walking Food Tours
A standard walking food tour involves taking a small group of people through a local neighbourhood, stopping off in different small shops or market stalls to taste different delicacies.
They can be brilliant, but they can also be pretty shoddy if the person running them knows nothing about the food. With a cooking class, it's unimaginable to run one if you can't cook. Walking tours have far less quality control.
The best food tours gave me new friends, recipes, great places to eat and a better understanding of the local culture. Others have just left me hungry and annoyed! The worst, gave me salmonella.
For local people, too, operators need to be careful. Large crowds of tourists who don't buy anything but who congregate in small shops, blocking access to regular customers, are no good. Small groups of involved people who chat, learn and even buy can be amazing.
Personal recommendations are always the best way to go but failing that, look out for companies that are passionate about food. That usually means that they DON'T run lots of other tours as well.
Recommended reading: Traditional Austrian Food in Vienna and Beyond: The 10 Dishes You Need to Know
3 -Fresh Food Markets
From the gentrified San Miguel in Madrid to the rough and ready, slop and unsteady stalls in Athens, markets provide a fascinating insight into a place, how it works and what it values.
What's great about them is that they're not set up for tourists. There's no tour, planning, booking or inauthentic marshalling.
You just need to find the dates and turn up. That said, a well run market tour can shed light on traditions you'd otherwise miss. In Quito, for example, I saw hanging branches of leaves and thought nothing of them. Apparently they're for beating people naked in a sauna to rid them of evil spirits. That's the kind of fact you need to know.
4 - Protected Status
While not directly representing food tourism, the protected status of certain foods makes it easier for travellers to realise their importance.
5 - Joining in at the Source
There's nothing like salt air whipping at your hair to connect you with the reality of fishing. Or strolling through vineyards to make you appreciate the work behind wine. Heading underground to the caves of Roquefort to make you stop and really think about the connection between milk and fungus and fine food.
Not always the area of soulless corporate machinations, food factories can provide illuminating experiences. Take the Tabasco Factory in Louisiana, set amid lush jungle gardens, greenhouses and a who's who of different tabasco tastes (there's more than just the one, you know.)
Recommended reading: Traditional Welsh Food: The Five Dishes You Need to Know
6 - Street Food
Hot sizzle and spice, street food strips away pretensions and dials up the flavours significantly. It's particularly good for places where you struggle with the language as you can see exactly what's going on and a smile and a point goes a long way.
7 - Awards
That said, don't automatically side step fine dining. It can be surprisingly easy and affordable to get reservations at Michelin-starred restaurants.
Did you know that many countries give out gastronomic awards to entire cities? Graz is Austria's official Culinary Capital of Delights, for example. Spain names a different Capital of Gastronomy each year (in 2016, it was Toledo.)
8 - Don't Forget the Drinks!
Wine tasting can feel more intimidating than all the rest put together. But, actually, most producers and vineyard owners and sommeliers just care that you show an interest. Not that you know it all. If you did, where would that leave them?
Make appointments to visit distilleries, breweries and vineyards as often as you can. Learn about signature cocktails (another chance for a cocktail class!) My tequila tasting in Mexico totally transformed the way I thought about the drink.
Recommended reading: The 7 La Rioja Bodegas You Need to Know
9 - Food Museums
In Athens, the food museum literally showcased food as works of art. In Dublin, the Guinness Museum doubles as a high-octane walk through advertising history. Both, completely changed the way I looked at local food. So now, whenever I head somewhere new, I look for any food museums.
10 - Food Festivals
OK, so the rancid, tomato-pelting Tomatina was a bad idea. But the twilight-lit Long Table of Graz in a UNESCO World Heritage Site was not.
Cherry festivals, garlic festivals, lobster, chocolate and giant clambakes.
Here's a list of some of the most fun food festivals around the world.
11 - Supper Clubs
A curious phenomenon, these tend to involve meeting up with people you've never met for food prepared by someone with passion. Often in an unusual location. Most tend to work on a word of mouth basis so they can be hard to track down.
12 - Secret Food Clubs
OK, this can be a strange one. But strangely brilliant. Like the Supper Clubs mentioned above, this typically involves meeting up with people you don't know to share a meal in a strange location. Only the location is only announced at the last minute and the existence of such clubs spreads through word of mouth (or social media.)
The strangest I went to was in Cape Town, where we all met in an abandoned warehouse and had to dress up in factory whites and hairnets with numbers. A loud speaker narrated what we did and food appeared in a hatch. There was no sign of the chef.
It sounds horrific. In reality, it was fantastic. Such an ice breaker. Such a creative thing to do. See also: Dining in the Dark.
13 - Local Food Ambassadors
And speaking of colleagues and writers. Many food writers and bloggers are so passionate about their work that they end up running food tours, supper clubs, publishing books and just generally helping people out because they can't help themselves.
So, take to social media or your book shop and find these people for the place you plan to visit. Then, engage with them (but don't stalk them, obviously.
14 - Farm Stays and Agroturismo
One step deeper than just visiting a food source involves staying there as well. One of the most exciting trends in travel and tourism (including sustainable tourism) involves the increasing popularity of "grow your own." Or, alternatively, converting the growing place into a hotel - the process of agroturismo.
So, you can wake up in England, surrounded by hens. Walk through the olive groves in Greece and stay with an olive oil sommelier. And even pick fresh herbs in the Caribbean.
How You Can Do (More Of) It
As a Hotel or Small Business
- Bring local specialties to your menu. Describe them in the local language and bring that knowledge to posters, menus, place mats, hotel brochures.
- Work with local farmers and markets. Produce a local map of the area with great local food spots and put together a resource.
- Wherever possible, "grow your own." Whether a rooftop garden or a series of fields, locally grown food is a hit with foodie travellers.
As a Destination
- Consider planning events like the Graz Long Table.
- Create a local map of food. If you don't feel there's enough food tourism possibilities locally, think of combining this with local arts, crafts and souvenirs. There's a big crossover between both. Visitors want to see how the land and the area have shaped the traditions that live on
- Plan food routes to help guide visitors to the foodie experiences in a region. For example, the Cheese Road in Bregenzerwald, Austria.
As a Farm
Consider running cooking classes or setting up a farm shop or running tours that visitors can join.
Food Tourism In Brief
- Food tourism is on the rise as people become more interested in experiences rather than simple sightseeing.
- Food tourism can bring economic and cultural benefits to a region.
- It's not all about fine dining and awards. Food tourism crosses all layers from fishing boats and street food markets to fine dining and intangible UNESCO World Heritage.
- Food tourism is a great way for tourists and locals to interact in a low pressure setting. Farm stays, cooking classes, and walking tours all facilitate real interaction. We all share through food.
- Food tourism helps to combat overtourism by spreading out visitors and making them focus on the culture and people of a place more than their checklists.
- Food is a great way to bring a place to life.
- It's fun!
From the Experts: Award-winning Food Bloggers Give Their Take on Food Tourism
Rachelle Lucas, The Travel Bite
Why do you think combining food and travel is an important concept?
This is such an interesting question! One (of many) reasons is that you can learn quite a bit about climate and history through what is able to grow in different regions. And learning becomes far more interesting and real when you can actually taste the experience. Also, in this day and age, where seemingly everything can be ordered online and delivered in two days, the signature dishes and flavors of a destination are something you must travel to experience. Sure, you can order a spice or certain pantry ingredients, but how a meal tastes in its original region cannot be replicated or shipped. And believe me, I've tried.
What's your best tip for beginner “foodies” to make food a more important part of their travels?
If you don't normally travel to experience new foods, or just stick to what's familiar, I'd recommend going on a food tour during your next trip. You can do a short afternoon learning about the foods in a city, tasting a variety of things so you can better understand what you like and don't like when it comes to flavor. Or you can commit to a 7-10 day food tour of a region where you get to experience a bit the countryside too. There seems to be a food tour available in (or connect to) most major cities these days. And not only will you get to taste a variety of things from the area, but typically you'll also learn more about the area and it's history. Think of it as a flavor adventure!
Laura Lynch, Savored Journeys
"Food is an essential part of an authentic experience. You simply can't experience the real, authentic side of a culture without food. You can learn so much about people and how they live through the food they eat, and the way they eat it. To visit Spain or Italy without caring about the food and the culture of eating is to miss out on at least half of the true culture of those countries. Ask any Italian what is the most beloved part of their culture and they'll tell you it's food and eating.
I read a lot of blog posts and travel articles about how to save money on food while traveling and how to avoid street food to not get sick. It makes me sad to think of all the amazing things I would have missed out on in a country if I had taken that advice.
As a food traveler, you can still immerse yourself in the history, architecture and art of a destination, but including new and unique food experiences is also essential."