Cuisine to the Rescue! Destinations Need to Focus on Food and Beverage to Win Back Travelers

By Erik Wolf, Executive Director, The World Food Travel Association

Despite the doom and gloom of the pandemic, we have not lost our passion for good food and drink. And in fact, many of us finally have had the time to cook at home, and talk with parents and grandparents to resurrect family recipes and learn old cooking methods. And because of the tight restrictions on movement, many of us have also rediscovered the joy of shopping in our own local neighbourhoods – bakers, butchers, greengrocers and the like. We have rediscovered nearby producers of local food and beverage products such as honey, vinegars, oils, cheeses, sauces, ciders, beers, kombucha, chocolate, tea, ice cream and more. In many ways, the pandemic opened our eyes to the food and beverage options in our own local areas.

I always look for the silver lining in every cloud. Despite the negative effects of the pandemic, I have seen numerous positive benefits, as painful as they have been for us to welcome. Specifically, many local food and beverage retail stores and producers have done well financially during the pandemic, and even grown market share.

As for travellers, not everyone plays golf, visits museums or enjoys sightseeing, but everyone eats and drinks. The onus is on tourism offices to help visitors to discover their unique and memorable food and beverage products and experiences. What a shame when millions of tourists leave a sun-drenched beach area with memories of nothing more than fish and chips, sausages, hamburgers, pizzas, colas and imported beer – the same food and drink they can get at home. And worse again is that many of these prepared foods are made by foodservice factories – lower quality purchased wholesale and resold to tourists at a tidy profit. Those millions of tourists will never be ambassadors for that destination, because they simply did not experience anything unique and memorable.

Buy low, sell high is business, you say. Yes, but what if we could do better? What if destinations, governments and businesses worked together to celebrate local food and beverage producers, growers and makers? Rather than exporting huge amounts of profit (as much as 85%) back to the headquarters of chain corporations, what if that 85% of profits was retained locally – impacting wages, local investment, job creation and even increased tax revenue.

Research done by the World Food Travel Association shows that food-loving visitors spend on average 25% of their travel budgets on food and drink. That percentage increases in more expensive destinations, as well as when food lovers spend more on culinary souvenirs. We actively seek out local grocery or gourmet stores and think nothing of spending US$/€/£ 200 on food and drink products on every trip to bring back home with us. That is in addition to everything we already spend on restaurants, cafes, wineries and breweries, bars, food and beverage tours, cooking classes and other culinary experiences. That said, food lovers are explorers and prefer to do our culinary souvenir shopping among locals and avoid the overpriced duty-free stores. Yet it is not always easy for us to find the best places to buy our culinary souvenirs. To this end, certified local culinary tourist guides can really help.

When we return from our holidays, we usually hear two common questions from friends and family, “How was the weather?” and “How was the food?”. Few people ask how the shopping was, or how the hotel was. We forget most hotel rooms like yesterday’s weather. Those stories might come out later, but the food and weather are always of utmost importance.

Because many of us bring food and beverage products back as souvenirs, a few things happen when we share these food and beverage products with friends at home. First, the word-of-mouth engine starts. Friends and family sample our souvenirs. They hear our endorsements, and they put themselves in our shoes. They see our pictures and videos and imagine what it would be like to be there, sampling these food and drink items in person themselves. Then invariably, someone always asks, “Where can I get this here?” If the product is not available in my area, then someone will have to make the trip to buy it in the same place where I bought it. That gets added to a wish list, which is what travelers are doing right now – adding to their lists.

That demand can eventually lead to product export opportunities, which can either create or reinforce inbound tourism. Take the case of Guaraná soft drink from Brazil. Brazilians living in the United States know and love this drink, and asked for it to be imported and sold in their local stores. The more Guaraná that was shared with other non-Brazilians, the more it gave people a reason to visit Brazil to discover what other gastronomic wonders the country was hiding. I can’t say that Guaraná is all the rage with Americans, but it is available throughout the USA, and many Americans have heard of it. And invariably, anyone visiting Brazil will be introduced to it before they leave.

Food and beverage brands can also most certainly encourage tourism. There is a very good reason why over a half million visitors each year (pre-pandemic) visit Epernay and Reims, France. It is because they know the Dom Perignon, Pommery and Taittinger cellar names.

The story is the same in Napa Valley, California, USA, which received four million visitors in 2019. People will travel to visit a famous brand like the Robert Mondavi Winery. Or consider the Ghirardelli chocolate factory in San Francisco. If you are a food lover, no visit to the city would be complete without a trip to Ghirardelli. You can even smell the chocolate in the air as you approach the facility. Talk about touching all five human senses.

Specific food and beverage products can also encourage tourism. One example is Parmesano Reggiano in Italy, where visitors will decide to visit because they want to try “the real thing.” Great balsamic vinegar is available everywhere, but if you want “the real thing,” then one simply must visit Modena. If you want some of the best black olives in the world, then you will need to make a trip to Peru. There, the high acid content and terroir give the black olives an intensely rich flavor found nowhere else on Earth. Are you ready to travel yet?

While wine lovers understand that they can visit Napa/Sonoma, Tuscany, Burgundy and are pretty much guaranteed a great wine experience, other regions are known for other culinary products and experiences. Spain’s Basque Country is known as a Michelin Mecca. Or if Michelin is out of your reach, you can find the famous Black Pork throughout most of Spain. Visitors to the Arab world can expect coffee (or tea) and dates in ample supply. When visiting Australia and New Zealand, be sure to try the local avocadoes featured prominently in many dishes. They are some of the best in the world.

Are you an olive oil lover? You have a lot of options. Besides the common Spain, Italy, Greece and California, did you know that Turkey, Tunisia, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Peru also all produce quality olive oil? Great olive oil alone may not be enough of a lure, so packaging food and beverage products with other destinations assets can often work well. Tukey has great gastronomy and history. South Africa has scenery and a fantastic wine industry, as does Australia. New Zealand has scenery, outdoor recreation and great wines too. Peru also offers a rich culinary culture, history and other cultural experiences. Sri Lanka has beautiful tea plantations, as well as a rich history and fantastic other cultural attractions.

Despite all the great food and beverage products around the world, few destinations do much to certify the quality or preserve the local brand. Champagne, France registered the Champagne name so now only sparkling wines produced in Champagne are eligible to use the Champagne name. Otherwise, well, it is just sparkling wine. We have seen a few “Made In” brands like New Zealand Made and Made in Arizona, but these programs often develop in a silo, and sometimes with a heavy hand from private industry, with merely a profit motive. There is usually a lack of coordination between such “brands” with tourism, agriculture and export offices, which means the “Made In” branding efforts tends unfortunately to have a highly anemic presence. A food lover wants assurances that a product made in the area is of the highest quality, that the producers were paid a fair wage in fair working conditions, and that the product was fully or mostly made in that area, and that environmental waste and packaging had the absolute minimum impact on our planet. There are plenty of examples of “genuine authentic Scottish whisky” being made in India, which of course, is neither genuine nor authentic. How is a consumer to know? The truth is, we do not always know. Tourism offices should champion this cause as an exercise in destination branding.

Authentic experiences and genuine products can have another major impact on an area, namely increasing community pride. To be known as “the place” where visitors (and locals alike) can get “the real thing” is a badge of honour. Jaen, Spain is proud to be the olive oil capital of Spain. Scotland is proud to be the whisky capital of the world (with Ireland coming in second place). England is the gin capital of the world. England, as well as Spain’s Basque Country, are known for their quality hard ciders. Holland is known for its real gouda and edam cheeses. San Francisco is known for its sourdough bread. New Orleans is known for its beignets. Quebec, Canada is known for maple syrup (as is the northeastern USA). Love lobsters? Then for the real thing you need to visit either Nova Scotia, Canada or Maine, USA. Chocolate lover? Head straight to Belgium or Switzerland. Lover of spices? Then Grenada is the West Indies is your port of call. Each of these destinations is fiercely proud of the quality products they produce. And this type of cachet can be built with different products in your area. All that is needed is the agricultural ingredients, creativity, and business acumen. Sadly, many entrepreneurs still do not have access to one or more of those essential components. Better training and investment opportunities can help these entrepreneurs to survive and thrive as economies world-wide adjust to the new normal.

ERIK WOLF, MA, CCTP, MCTP is recognized as the founder of the modern food tourism industry and the World Food Travel Association. He is a highly-sought speaker, thought leader, strategist and consultant, in the US, UK and abroad, on food and drink tourism issues, and has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes, and on CNN, Sky TV, the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,, and other leading media outlets. He advises leading global brands such as World Travel Market, Absolut, American Express, Disney, Marriott and Royal Caribbean, and organizations such as UNESCO and UNWTO. His articles, research and books have been translated into dozens of languages.

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