An Appetite For Travel

Delighting in the culinary treats of other countries is one of the main reasons people travel abroad. You wouldn't head to France while on Atkins, Vietnam if you're allergic to shellfish or to Italy if wine gives you a headache. But while 26 percent of recently surveyed travelers identified themselves as "accidental" culinary travelers—those who participated in culinary or wine activities simply because they were available—a growing amount, 46 percent, deemed themselves "deliberate" culinary travelers, saying that the availability of culinary activities was a key reason for taking the trip.

That data, derived from 2,364 American leisure travelers and co-sponsored by Gourmet magazine, the Travel Industry Association and the International Culinary Tourism Association, also shows that interest in the culinary travel market continues to grow, as 60 percent of U.S. leisure travelers say they're interested in partaking in such activities as cooking classes and winery tours, visiting farmer's markets and attending food and wine festivals while on vacation.

Another ingredient—and perhaps more concrete evidence—of the trend is the rising booked business of tour operators that are either solely or partially devoted to the market segment. All interviewed for this article pointed to a significant up-tick in culinary tour bookings over the last three years, and some noted forthcoming plans to expand the burgeoning business.

"Culinary tourism has reached the tipping point as a niche and an industry," Erik Wolf, president and CEO of the International Culinary Tourism Association, said in a statement accompanying the survey.

Why is interest in culinary travel reaching its boiling point? Industry watchers point to two possible reasons: First, the success of the Food Network and its spread of celebrity chefs, whose successes have bubbled over from the kitchen and into television and magazines. Second, as clients travel the world more, they look for different takes on their favorite destinations.

A Classic Journeys culinary traveler gets hands-on instruction in Amalfi

"We have a lot of experienced travelers in the world right now, and a lot of people have been to Tuscany, for example, so there's something about going back and approaching it from a different angle," says Steve Snapp, creative director for Classic Journeys, a La Jolla, CA-based tour operator that offers culinary tours in France and Italy. "Culinary tourism really has that semi-practical quality to it, and it gives them the ability to impress their friends and say, 'I can cook like a Tuscan!'"

People learning to cook like Tuscans, Parisians and the like tend to be younger travelers, falling into the 35 to 54 age bracket; more affluent, spending $1,194 per trip ($425 of which goes to food-related activities); and better educated (44 percent of those surveyed graduated college or did post-graduate work, according to the report). Meanwhile, wine travelers fit the same demographic, but instead spend $973 per trip with $219 of their budget going towards wine-related activities.

"Culinary tourism is really for people who are looking for something off the beaten path," says Peggy Markel, president of Peggy Markel Culinary Adventures, which offers foodie-focused trips to Tuscany, Morocco, Sicily and Elba. "These tours tend to attract the purposeful traveler, someone who really wants to go and drop in on a country and have a more meaningful experience."

A sampling of food in Amalfi on a Classic Journeys tour

Culinary tour operators right away realized the potential of such tours, in terms of growth and dollar amount. Classic Journeys began operating culinary tours after strikingly positive customer feedback from introducing a few hours of cooking instruction on tours in Provence and Sicily. "Clients loved it because they got the chance to hear great things about the region," says Ed Piegza, CEO of Classic Journeys. "We decided we would build a trip and expand on the instructions—but not have it be a chore—where over the course of seven days you're engaged in four cooking instructions."

In fact, the "recipe" of the culinary tour is the most important aspect of booking the trip. Tour operators advise spending ample time with clients to determine whether the client is looking to come home with a notebook full of recipes or just a full stomach. Some culinary tours are very rigorous, with schedules on par with attending a culinary institute, including early morning trips to the market and day-long classes. Others offer a more relaxed atmosphere, allowing guests to simply sit back, relax, eat and enjoy.

Wine villages of Switzerland, as viewed on an Alternative Tour Cater to your client's expectations and assure them there is no need to feel intimidated on most tours. "With the culinary and wine tours that we do, they're designed for the average Joe, as well as aficionados," says Marian Deal Smith, president of Alternative Tours in Cherry Hill, NJ. Her company offers culinary tours to France and Switzerland.

"Most of the recipes that we do—about 60 percent—I've done again. The other 40 percent I would never be able to do again," she continues. "Not everyone has the money to afford to go to Europe and spend all your time in a classroom and not see anything."

Next, find out from the tour operator the kind of instruction the teacher provides, how much time is spent cooking and how hands-on it is, says Classic Journey's Piegza. "That's where you need to begin, because there are plenty of people who are so serious, that hours of instruction aren't enough, they want to take notes," he says.

Also ask whether the instructor or restaurant can defer dishes to dietary needs, such as the necessary restrictions for gluten-free guests. "I usually have diabetics on every trip," Deal Smith says. Another need-to-know is whether everyone in the group must be dedicated to cooking or if any alternatives are available for people who choose not to become the next Top Chef. "We have things for people to go do if they're not interested—they don't just have to sit in the hotel," Piegza says.

The hard part of planning such tours is narrowing down options, as offerings can vary just as greatly as a diner menu. For example, part of Alternative Tours' "Culinary Switzerland and France with Rhone River Cruise" includes visits to spots made famous by Claude Monet paintings. Thanks to the culinary theme, a chef prepares a few of the artist's favorite recipes.

For socially conscious travelers, Peggy Markel's tours center on supporting small culinary operations (such as family trattorias) so that such businesses can maintain their importance. Markel is a founding member of Slow Food USA, an organization dedicated to the high quality and taste of food, as well environmental sustainability and social justice in farming. "My programs are based on that, which I think is different from a lot of tours and tour operators," she says. "I do something much more hands-on, much more grounded and more about the people that are growing the food customers are eating."

On one of Markel's tours, visitors can meet the baker right before he opens shop and taste the fresh bread, or take a cooking lesson at the home of a local cookbook writer. "It's all about food—the thread is food and every excursion is related to food—but we're not in the kitchen eight hours a day," she says.

Classic Journeys' perspective is focused on keeping you full and fit, combining culinary tours with walking tours. The company's Provence tour takes you on a walk through the thyme-scented countryside, past truffle oaks and vineyards. The cooking portion of the tour includes meetings with a local chef, farmers and artisans and a Provence-style cooking class that takes place in an 18th century chateau.

"It's not just a tour that only a cook can love," Piegza says.

While the survey conducted by Gourmet, TIA and the International Culinary Tourism Association focused on favorite food and wine-related destinations in the U.S., some would argue that Europe currently offers the most flavor in this niche market. For many, the lure of Europe lies in the continent's use of locally grown produce. "I live in the suburbs of D.C. now, and I lived in New York for 23 years and there is such a broad base of things that are considered 'Tuscan' in the U.S.," says Classic Journeys' Snapp. "Once people are exposed to it, they're aware that this food has a closeness to nature. There is that mindset that says, 'This is a way of life and thinking that I love, and that I aspire to.'"

On a Global Spectrum Tour, clients pick up fresh peppers at a market in Vietnam Of course, culinary tours expand to regions of the world beyond Europe, although they may not be as popular just yet. The survey counted California, Florida and New York as the respective top three U.S.-based food-travel sites, and Asia is also quickly whetting savvy travelers' appetites. The Asia Pacific region could be the next frontier of culinary tourism. Marcia Selva, founder and owner of Global Spectrum says her culinary tours focused on Southeast Asia are growing at a phenomenal rate.

"It's grown at least 50 percent," she says. "Over the past three years, I've seen a few things develop. One is that the U.S. in general is looking toward a healthier lifestyle, and Vietnamese food is healthy. Two is that culinary schools are popping up all over in Asia. They wouldn't be popping up if there wasn't a demand for it."

Vietnam is known for its spices

Selva's business is focused on countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore, and she attributes the rising interest to word of mouth. "With the visibility that it's gotten over the last few years, it's gotten stronger and stronger," she says. "Vietnam has finally come of age and has the ability to handle the international crowd now. I see a lot more growth over the next three to five years."

Too, The New York Times reports culinary travel to Peru is on the rise, thanks to the fame garnered abroad by Peruvian chefs. Exquisite Safaris offers culinary experiences in Africa, South America and the South Pacific, while Gourmet on Tour leads excursions to Australia, among other places across the U.S. and Europe.

Get a close look at a produce market in Peru in the video below:

A potential hurdle to the success of such tours is concerns of health and sanitation in less-traversed countries. "Everyone is afraid to eat the food, because they don't know what to order and they don't want to eat anything that could make them sick," says Selva, adding that the presence of culinary schools is helping to deflect that stigma. "(The schools) help to identify the food types to order, and we work very hard to ensure that health and sanitation is paramount at the sites we visit," she continues. "Sure, people get sick, but they also get sick in Europe and in Mexico, too."

Regardless of any hesitations clients may have, tour operators report that culinary tourism isn't a tough egg to crack, as most business is repeat customers. "I find that culinary tours are something that just gets people's attention; it's a little bit different and a little bit special," says Deal Smith of Alternative Tours, which pays agents commission for repeat business. "Everybody needs to eat and loves to eat."

Agent Info

Alternative Tours (no web site)
800-783-5605
Agent liaison: Marian Deal Smith
Commission: varies with each trip

Classic Journeys
800-200-3887
Agent liaison: Emily Davis (Emily@classicjourneys.com)
Commission: 10 percent

Global Spectrum
800-419-4446
Agent liaison: Michael Coon, michaelin_sideroute@aol.com, 707-254-9650
Commission: 10 percent

Peggy Markel Tours
800-988-2851
Commission: $100

Gourmet On Tour
646-461-6088

Exquisite Safaris
888-434-6205

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