Street food tours, cookery classes, market visits, wine and beer tastings – they are all part of the rapidly growing industry of food tourism. But what is ‘food tourism’ exactly?The World Food Travel Association helpfully describes it as, “the pursuit of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both far and near”. It’s a good start, and certainly the word “experiences” sets food tourism apart from merely dining at restaurants.
Food store in Parma. Photo: Adam Batterbee
Andrea Aiolfi has been running Food Valley Travel & Leisure in Parma, Italy, since 2004, and his food and cultural tours have helped to put the region of Emilia-Romagna on the food map. Italophiles have long known that this wedge of central Italy is home to some of the country’s best food – notably the holy trinity of Italian products: prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham), Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and the balsamic vinegar of Modena.
“There is a worldwide passion about quality food and the desire of more knowledge about the origin of some products,” says Aiolfi . “There is a return to the past in this sense, a search for genuine products and recipes avoiding big chains, supermarkets or fast foods. People are looking for local markets and authentic experiences. The growth has been impressive, especially in the past five years.”
For Aiolfi, the impact on local accommodation has been considerable. “This movement has pushed many to open B&Bs, agriturismo and apartments,” he says. “Those that we choose more are the ones that also offer other kinds of experiences such as cooking classes.”
Because of the surge of interest in good food and drink, lodging properties and tour operators have had to up their game - Erik Wolf, the World Food Travel Association
The World Food Travel Association’s 2018 State of the Food Tourism Industry report also points out how accommodation providers are adapting their business models. It highlights experience style programmes, which include a staggering number of food-travel options – everything from a cooking class on an organic farm in Bali and a tapas bar crawl in Madrid, to a winery tour of Sonoma in a vintage VW Campervan.
Erik Wolf, Executive Director at the World Food Travel Association, cites the “deluge of food-themed TV shows” as one of the driving forces. “Because of the surge of interest in good food and drink, lodging properties and tour operators have had to up their game,” he says. “Destinations that never thought about food as a focus worth pursuing are suddenly finding themselves needing to address their food and drink offerings as attractions for visitors.”
Role of technology
Technology, too, has played its part. It’s not just the ease with which people can find food tours and accommodation online, or the ubiquity of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Apps such as bitemojo.com can take you on self-guided food tours in major cities. And in some restaurants in India, you could be served your food by a robot.
One region that has surged ahead in its food offerings is Southeast Asia, where it seems a visit isn’t complete without a tour of street food stalls. James Mundy, whose InsideAsia travel company includes InsideJapan, InsideVietnam and InsideBurma, sees the relation between the love of Japanese and Vietnamese food among his mainly British clients and the need to visit the countries of origin.
“All our brands have a range of food experiences, including a cooking course with a Michelin-starred chef in Tokyo or a food tour on a Vespa in Ho Chi Minh,” he says. “In Japan especially, food is always part of the traditional ryokan [guesthouse] experience. Staying at a shukubo temple lodging also offers an incredible vegetarian Buddhist feast.”
Many destinations that were not used to foreigners have developed their offerings to be slightly more foreigner friendly - James Mundy, InsideAsia
In the 18 years that InsideJapan has been operating, Mundy has seen how Japan has adapted itself to suit the client. “Many destinations that were not used to foreigners have developed their offerings to be slightly more foreigner friendly,” he says. “For example, many ryokan offer huge traditional breakfasts, but to prevent food waste and work, we have worked with the ryokan to tone down their amazing offerings.”
The opening in November 2017 of Fico Eataly World – touted as the world’s biggest agri-food park – on the outskirts of Bologna seemed to signal the city’s bold statement as the food capital of Italy. Instead of Bologna’s intimate, medieval markets, Eataly World’s enormous space housing numerous shops, stalls and play areas have more in common with American-style 'megamarkets'. It hasn’t been welcomed by all locals, and offers a hint of what happens when food tourism takes an unexpected turn.
Andrea Aiolfi has mixed feelings about it. “After the first period when everybody will go there for curiosity, it won’t be easy to keep up the interest,” he says. “Of course it should be a big shop window to help the promotion of quality food all over Italy. It must remain this and not pretend to substitute the real thing.”
It’s an important point to remember in the food traveller’s pursuit of the authentic experience.
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- Some Japanese guesthouses have adapted their offerings to be more foreigner friendly
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