What Is Food Tourism?

How Today's Food Tourism Industry 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.

Our Industry at a Glance

The following infographic is based on data from our 2016 Food Travel Monitor research report. Download a higher resolution version of this infographic here.

Defining Food Tourism

We are often asked to define "Food Tourism". We have seen many definitions from around the world, but for us, the definition is as simple as this, "The pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both far and near."

We say "food tourism", but drinking beverages is an implied and associated activity. It is also cumbersome to say "food and drink tourism". 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 special grocery store or to eat out, you're a "food traveler" in your own backyard! 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. 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".

Previously we had used the phrase "culinary tourism" to describe our industry. We stopped using that phrase 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 seems 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. "Food Tourism" is includes the food carts and street vendors as much as the locals-only (gastro)pubs, dramatic wineries, or one-of-a-kind restaurants. There is something for everyone in the food tourism industry.

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.


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More Than Agritourism

The most frequent misunderstanding or misconception among professionals in our industry is that agritourism and food tourism are interchangeable terms. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Agritourism is a subset of rural tourism, and involves farms, farm activities, and can include farmers' markets. As an activity, agritourism tends to be popular with locals and close-in regional travelers, but it tends to be less attractive to visitors from across countries or across the world.

Very few visitors will pay money to ride a cow or purchase a bunch of rhubarb to take back to their hotel room. Farm tours generally are a more popular activity with children, which is another reason farm visitors tend to be more local and regional (because it is much more expensive to transport a family with children by air than it is by car).

Recently, some visitors have expressed interest in food pedigree (sourcing), composting and animal welfare. These are more food industry issues and have less to do with tourism, although some travelers take their behavior and values with them while traveling. The bottom line is that agriculture has a very limited appeal to long haul visitors, and therefore has limited economic potential.

The food tourism industry, and our Association, respect agriculture, and farmers, and acknowledges that the seeds of cuisine are in agriculture. Rather than focusing on agritourism, a more profitable potential for the agriculture industry is in value-added agricultural products. Look at our wheel of economic development which illustrates how agriculture, agritourism and food tourism (in other words, our entire community) interrelate.

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.

Food Tourism 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.