What Is Food Tourism?

Traveling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place.

Defining Food Tourism & Industry Terms

2018 - today

We're still using the term food tourism (and food travel). However, the time has come to offer a simpler definition of "food travel." What do we really mean when we say "food travel" or "food tourism"?

"Food tourism is the act of traveling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place."

As our industry is rapidly evolving, professionals, academics and others continue to put forward their own definitions of food tourism, culinary tourism and gastronomy tourism (these phrases are synonyms, as we explain below). Also as explained below, traveling a certain distance or overnighting in a lodging property is often required by some organizations for the activity to be regarded as "tourism." But that ignores any locals who travel across a city for a new food or beverage product or experience. Some people don't believe beverages should be included in "food tourism." Some people find the use of "food" too banal, and prefer culinary tourism or gastronomy tourism. For others, they think of gourmet or agricultural offerings, when they hear the word "food." These are overly complicated attempts to explain the simplest concept, "Food tourism is the act of traveling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place." You can always dissect the definition further, but there is simply no easier way to explain the act of traveling to experience unique food and beverage products and experiences. Simple is always best.


We stopped using "culinary tourism" to describe our industry in 2012 because our research indicated that it gave a misleading impression. While "culinary" technically can be used for anything relating to food and drink and initially seemed to make good sense, the perception among the majority of English-speakers we interviewed is that the word "culinary" is elitist. Nothing could be further from the truth about what our industry and our Association are all about. So we introduced the term "food tourism," which is still the overarching term we use today.  "Food Tourism" includes the full range of experiences, from food carts and street vendors, to the locals-only (gastro)pubs, dramatic wineries, or one-of-a-kind restaurants. There is something for everyone in the food tourism industry.

We say "food tourism," but drinking beverages is an implied and associated activity. It is also cumbersome to say "food and drink tourism." 


In the earliest days of our industry, we defined food tourism as "The pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both far and near." (Erik Wolf, Executive Director, Culinary Tourism: A Tasty Economic Proposition, 2001).  This was our industry's first white paper that explained what food tourism is and how it can benefit industry stakeholders.

We need to clarify "far and near." In addition to traveling across country or the world to eat or drink, we can also be food travelers in our own regions, cities and neighborhoods. If you rarely leave your neighborhood and travel across town to a new neighborhood to go to a specialty grocery store or to eat out, we would also consider you a "food traveler". The act of traveling is implied because most people travel at least across their own town, if not the region, the country and even the planet. To us, the distance covered is not as important as the fact that we are always on the move. We are all "travelers" of a sort and we are all "eaters." Therefore, we can also all be regarded as "food travelers." For many organizations and tourism offices, the definition of "tourism" needs to include traveling a certain distance (often 80 km/50 mi) or spending at least one night in a lodging property.  For us, this approach presents a serious limitation to how we view and define food tourism.

After the above-mentioned white paper was published and while our industry was still young, we used the phrase "culinary tourism" to describe our industry.


Food Tourism, Culinary Tourism or Gastronomy Tourism?

The official position of our Association is that these three phrases are functionally equivalent. The phrase you prefer to use to name our industry really depends on your perspective, and your mother tongue. Let's discuss each phrase separately.

  • Food Tourism: We've stated before that our definition of this phrase automatically includes beverages because "food and beverage tourism" is cumbersome to say. Also, it is implied that if people are eating, they are probably drinking as well. For some, "food" sounds too common. Perhaps, but the meaning is clear and it is easy to say. Also, "food tourism" avoids the slightly elitist reputation of the two phrases that follow. We use "food travel" and "food tourism" interchangeably, depending on how the term sounds in a particular situation, although we are sure that there are a few professionals and probably even more academics who will be happy to point out the minute differences between the two phrases. 
  • Culinary Tourism: We began with this phrase when our industry was young, but we realized after 10 years, that native English speakers found the phrase a bit pretentious. That came as s surprise, as this was never our intent. Still, the elitist perception remains. "Culinary" echoes time spent in professional culinary training to become a chef. While it may not be the best phrase, it does already include "beverages" without further explanation. And in certain circumstances, such as discussing "culinary culture," to our ears, this phrase simply sounds better than "food culture", although again, the terms are interchangeable.
  • Gastronomy Tourism: We find this phrase used mostly in Europe, and mostly among speakers of romance languages. For them, "food travel" sounds very basic and banal - almost like cavemen hunting for food. "Gastronomy" is the term used to explain an area's culinary culture, and for them, it follows that "gastronomy tourism" makes the most sense. To native English speakers, the phrase does sound a bit "elitist," but in context, we understand why this term is used. In these markets, it is perfectly acceptable to us to use the term "gastronomy tourism".


How the Modern Food Tourism Industry Got Started

Food tourism is not complicated, yet there are some basic fundamentals you need to know. The articles below will help, but first start with our video below showing how the World Food Travel Association and today's food tourism industry got started.

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Industry at a Glance

The following infographic is based on data from our 2016 Food Travel Monitor research report.


Economic Impact

Estimating the economic impact of food & beverage tourism is at best, very difficult. First, we would need to find how many travelers there are to an area. Then we would need to interview them to find out how much they spend on food and drink while traveling. We could dig deeper and ask them what percentage of their expenditures are for sustenance vs. a unique food or beverage experience. We would also have to factor out expenditures by locals. And how would you account for a visitor's spending on gourmet souvenir items in a grocery store? As you can see, the task is very difficult, and the cost of figuring out exactly how much travelers are spending on food and beverage experiences can outweigh the findings.

We have a better way. Over the years, through our own research, secondary research, interviews and conversations, we have constructed our own impression of the value of food tourism. By our estimate, visitors spend approximately 25% of their travel budget on food and beverages. The figure can get as high as 35% in expensive destinations, and as low as 15% on more affordable destinations.  Confirmed food lovers also spend a bit more than the average of 25% spent by travelers in general.

Please conduct more evidence-based research if you require absolute precision. We're confident that your result will most likely fall in this range.  Perhaps a better question to ask yourself would be, is it worth the extra cost of doing your own custom research to learn that your figure varies by only 2.3% from the estimate provided by the World Food Travel Association? You might find better things to spend your money on.

Most governments publish data on total visitor arrivals and expenditures. Take the estimated economic impact of visitors to your area and multiply it by 25%. That is your estimated economic impact of expenditures on the food and beverage sector.

Who Are Food Travelers?

Research from our 2016 Food Travel Monitor proves that 93% of travelers can now be considered food travelers. By "food travelers", we mean travelers who had participated in a food or beverage experience other than dining out, at some time in the past 12 months. They may have visited a cooking school, participated in a food tour, or gone shopping in a local grocery or gourmet store. These are the types of activities that food travelers engage in. We also go on tours at food or beverage factories, participate in wine/beer/spirits tastings, and of course, eat out in unique or memorable foodservice establishments. We'll visit a chocolatier, bakery or gelateria to sample what makes the area famous. Most importantly, food travelers are explorers. We love to get off the beaten path and find the new (or new for us), unique or undiscovered experiences.

It may surprise many readers to learn that foodies with a Gourmet preference are absolutely in the minority. To be specific, our 2010 PsychoCulinary research showed that only 8.1% of food travelers expressed an interest in Gourmet experiences as their primary interest. By the time our 2016 research was published, that number had risen to 18%, but still very much in the minority. We attribute the increase due to television programming about chefs, chef competitions and cooking.



Sector Stakeholders



Industry Benefits

Food Tourism may sound like a great idea, but what tangible, measurable benefits can your involvement with our industry bring to you? Here's our short list of what you and the various players in your area can realize as you become more engaged in a sustainable food and drink tourism strategy:

  • More visitor arrivals
  • More sales (rooms/airplane seats/restaurant meals/wine/beer/car rentals/etc.)
  • More media coverage
  • A new competitive advantage or unique selling proposition (i.e. unique food and drink)
  • More tax revenue to government authorities
  • Increased community awareness about tourism in general
  • Increased community pride about, and awareness of, the area's food and drink resources

Data on the economic impact of food or drink tourism is hard to find. Only a few tourism offices or governments have ever conducted such research. It is also very difficult to discuss demographics of food travelers because all travelers eat and drink. That said, the Association is one of the few entities who has undertaken this task. Over a decade of experience in the food tourism industry has led us to conclude that approximately 25% of visitor spending can be attributed to food and drink while traveling. This percentage tends to be higher in more expensive destinations and lower in less expensive destinations.

The Seeds of Cuisine Are in Agriculture

A frequent misunderstanding or misconception among professionals in our industry is that agritourism and food tourism are interchangeable terms. This is not true.

Agritourism is a subset of rural tourism, and involves experiences on farms such as overnight farmstays, harvest festivals, and dinners-on-the-farm. Certain types of agritourism tend to be popular with locals and regional travelers (u-pick, farm tours); and other types are attractive to visitors from across countries or across the world (overnight farmstays, or consider the agriturismo experience in Italy).  Recently, visitors have expressed increased interest in food pedigree (sourcing), composting, sustainability, and animal welfare. While we consider these to be more food industry issues having less to do with tourism, neverthlesss some travelers take their behavior and values with them while traveling.

The economic impact of food tourism as an overall industry can be far greater than agritourism because it involves a much wider variety of complementary businesses that appeal to larger numbers of travelers than do farms and farmers’ markets. That said, the food tourism industry, and our Association, respect agriculture, and farmers, and acknowledge that the seeds of cuisine are in agriculture. The diagram below illustrates how agriculture, agritourism and food tourism interrelate with other components of the industry. Special thanks to Lisa Chase (University of Vermont) for contributing to our industry's understanding of  agritourism. The following graphic is (c) 2018 by World Food Travel Association. Download a higher resolution image for your own use in presentations here.