A group of 200 industry food tourism industry leaders met last month at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, Spain, at a conference co-hosted by the United Nation's World Tourism Organization. The purpose of the conference was to define food tourism and debate the value and future of the industry. The result? The consensus is that food and drink tourism is here to stay. Why? It's mostly about the money.
Food tourism is all the rage. No fewer than four food and drink tourism trade events took place in the month of April. Naysayers, please recall the vast surge in consumer interest in food and cooking as documented by popular television shows like “Iron Chef America” and “Chopped.”
At the most basic level, food is a quintessential component of local culture just like art, music, architecture, film, literature, humor and so on. What we eat, how we prepare it, the dishes and utensils we use, and even the recipes passed down by our elders are all part of our area's food and drink culture. The strength of food culture in countries like Italy and France is readily apparent. Perhaps you've heard of pasta or foie gras? Foods like these have achieved iconic importance and serve as culinary ambassadors for their regions.
The difference in food culture between neighboring U.S. states
like Georgia and Tennessee, or neighboring countries like Australia and New Zealand, is not as easily apparent. This can confuse potential visitors, and confused (or uninformed) visitors means fewer
Georgia is known for peach pie, boiled peanuts, Brunswick stew and, of course, Coca-Cola. Tennessee is known for barbecue and whisky. The differences between the cuisines of Georgia and Tennessee are readily apparent to food travelers. For others, they may enjoy those foods, too, without even realizing their cultural significance.
For the UN, the unique food of many destinations is regarded as an "intangible cultural asset" unlike tangible cultural assets we already know, like a statue or painting. It might not always be easy to explain how a dish like Irish Stew has evolved since its creation, hence its intangibility. So far only Armenia and Mexico have had portions of their cuisine certified as an intangible cultural asset by UNESCO. More nations have applications pending. While UNESCO approval is the "holy grail" of culinary culture preservation, many areas are taking other steps to protect their food cultures. Consider the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans, the Cork Butter Museum in Ireland, or the Guinness Storehouse factory and museum, also in Ireland.
We like to be proud of our own unique and memorable foods and drinks, yet the real value of promoting food and drink tourism is the massive role it plays in driving economic development. We know that visitors spend, on average 25%, of their travel budget on food and drink, so without doing expensive, time-consuming research, you can estimate the same expenditure for your area. Tax revenue is additional. Twenty-five percent is significant. Do you want visitors returning home with memories of chain coffee and hamburgers or do you want them returning as fans raving about something new and different that they tasted? Even better, send them home with stories to share of their culinary experiences in your area, aided by the proliferation of smartphones. Food travelers engage in a wide range of activities beyond the feeding of three meals per day. Cooking classes, food tours, wine and beer tastings and even grocery and gourmet store visits all rank high on the foodies' to-do list.
Many tourism marketers want to determine the spending multiplier in a local economy. When it comes to measuring food tourism's impact, we also need to look at how much money stays in the local economy. According to the American Independent Business Alliance, chain restaurants recirculate only 34.5% of revenue, while locally owned restaurants recirculate 65.4%. In other words, money spent in independently owned restaurants is nearly twice as valuable to the community as cash spent in chains, because more of the money stays in the community in the first place. Chains have benefits: a predictable meal at a predictable price. But don't you want more money staying in your community?
Most travelers need help making the right food and drink choices. Why promote your area's 100 ethnic dining choices when many visitors have the same range of choices at home? And a restaurant guide that includes global brands that visitors can find on their own does not help them to discover your area's best, nor does it benefit much the local economy. Why do you think people spend so much time snapping photos of their meals? We're a food-obsessed culture, and thank goodness for that. So give your visitors what they want. Remember, it's not a meal, it's a memory.