Gastro-tourism, a great inbound and outbound option


Food tourism is as old as the hills but India has not realised it yet. Europe on the other hand is a past(a) master at it. Of course there is an added advantage of shorter distances and the option of driving across to eat; even so people are venturing out further to taste new cultures.

Just this week, my niece – back in Canada after an exciting three weeks in India – forwarded a piece on chaat in The Star. It not only outlined the various types of chaat for Toronto residents who didn’t know already, it also added a heavy dose of Indian culture. Reading it as a Canadian with an adventurous palate, I would at least be tempted to explore India’s culinary delights, albeit at first from the safe distance of the internet.

Stray lines from another article on the net caught my eye: “A new national food policy, due to be unveiled by the Scottish Government, later this year, will cover every aspect of the food chain. Announced in January, it will join up work across the Scottish Government and examine the kind of food served up in schools, hospitals and public-sector canteens. Ministers hope the new policy will boost both food-and-drink tourism, as well as exports.”

Nice phrase that – food and drink tourism…And not off the mark either as Forbes magazine has also come out with a list called “The World’s Top Tasting Trips” and says “Though traditional tasting trips to Napa Valley wine country or the heart of Provence are still popular, more and more travellers are exploring cuisine in countries like India, Turkey and New Zealand.

According to a recent survey released by the Travel Industry Association of America and the National Restaurant Association, food is central to deciding vacation destinations for at least 25% of leisure travelers. And 58% of American leisure travellers say they are somewhat/very interested in taking a trip to engage in culinary or wine-related activities. The International Culinary Tourism Association even says on its website that “culinary tourism is about how to best develop and market a new kind of visitor attraction – unique and memorable food and drink experiences.”

These gastro-tourists are not only driven by the new-found concern for the origin of food (the foie gras market may just dip, for instance if more people saw how the geese are fed…) but they also want to learn the history and culture of their favourite cuisines. “Staying a week in a vineyard in Tuscany has totally changed my perception of Italian food,” says a well travelled NRI. “Once you see vine-ripened tomatoes your perspective changes…”

Think about it: how long would Indian cuisine remained doomed to go back and forth between tandoori chicken and kaali daal in the world’s perception, if say, more people did a tour of South India? They would soon know that India’s culinary facets outnumber even its sightseeing options! Already the Taj has started these taste tours for the well heeled, but I’m sure it won’t be long before more hotel chains and travel agents catch onto this trend.

What better way to understand a country and its people than to sample what keeps them going?

Choosing and crafting a culinary tour isn’t easy. Nor is it easy on the pocket. Some of the better known, top-rung current options cost well over $1,500 per couple per day, and that doesn’t often include airfares…

In Australia, for Greekalicious cooking school is advertising a culinary “adventure of indulgence across four Greek Isles and more than 20 locales” from September 2008 for A$9,850 for twin share excluding air fares. For that amount its founder, Greek-Australian Maria Benardis is offering a 19-day journey taking gastro-tourists back in time to visit the places where gastronomy – a Greek word signifying the relationship between food and the senses – all began. The menu includes feasting on freshly caught seafood and exploring organic wine, olive oil and vinegar-making places, staying in good hotels, meeting chefs and enjoying special cooking classes.

No wonder from Poland to Portsmouth, all government stakeholders at least are doing their best to make tourists salivate at the idea of savouring their areas. Malgorzata Rose, a Polish emigre now living in the US, for instance, is tempting compatriots to visit Poland with an “agrotourism” agenda including cooking in farmhouses in traditional style, and then learning modern Polish cuisine from top chefs in towns. There’s also trips to local markets and festivals for typical breads, meats, cheeses, honey and alcohol. There’s even blueberry and mushroom hunting – with nice palace-hotels or city-hotels to rest in at the end of the day!

All of this opens up tremendous prospects – not only of people visiting India for more than the Taj Mahal and the palaces of Rajasthan but also Indians going abroad for more than shopping and lazing holidays. A way to a tourist’s heart may well be through his or her stomachs!