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London, Travelpress.biz

It could be the colorful sight of a giant rustic paella in a Spanish seaside town or the smell of a warm bagel on a New York street. But whatever the dish, it seems food is something an increasing number of us remember from our travels. Like never before, holiday makers are choosing where they go by what they can put in their stomachs - and catering for them is now top of the menu for tour operators and destinations.

Fiona Jeffery, Group Exhibition Director of World Travel Market, who undertook the independent research with 2000 people throughout the UK of all ages and socio economic groups, said: "Food tourism today is where eco-tourism was 20 years ago; people are starting to take an interest.

"Although the research was carried out on behalf of World Travel Market was in the UK, we believe it is representative of a new and growing phenomenon within the international industry.

historic cpr travel posters"The industry needs to take note and use the opportunity to its advantage. Holidaymakers want a hands-on experience and food is a manifestation of a destination's culture.

"You can open a different door with every meal."

"The last five years has seen an incredible shift in the way holidays are marketed and it's all because people are demanding authentic experiences, said Erik Wolf, president of the International Culinary Tourism Association, a non-profit group representing more than 500 tourism businesses in 19 countries." For the first time, the true extent of food tourism has been measured in the UK by World Travel Market, the premier business event for the international travel and tourism industry, with research revealing more than half (53%) ranked eating traditional dishes as a 'very important' or 'important' part of their holiday.Meanwhile, a staggering 86% of Brits quizzed said they enjoyed local foods when abroad. The trend is not just limited to those on specialist tailor-made breaks either, with 83% of people who typically go on half- or full-board holidays admitting they willingly miss meals in their hotel or resort to try out local restaurants.

International chef Gary Rhodes, whose TV programmes has helped open up the world's traditional dishes and ingredients to a hungry audience, has recently opened a Rhodes restaurant in Calabash, on the Caribbean island of Grenada and onboard P&O Cruises' new liner Arcadia. He said: "The potential for tourism through dining is enormous and what better way to learn about a country than at the table! My experience is that travellers are becoming both more sophisticated and daring about what they eat."

Changes in Weekly Shop

Supermarkets have played a major part in the shift in attitudes, making foreign foods more available. One supermarket chain, Waitrose, for example, recently unveiled a range of tapas and Greek dishes that customers might have tried on their holiday. "The world is becoming a smaller place and we are seeing our customers' tastes change to reflect this. Dishes from all corners of the globe are becoming mainstream additions to the British dinner table," said Waitrose communications manager Gill Smith."Flavours people have sampled on holiday are becoming more popular.

As they travel to further afield, customers are more willing to experiment with new flavours. Our oriental range now extends beyond Chinese dishes to Japanese, Malaysian and Thai foods. "We're also finding that as people travel more, they are more knowledgeable about regional trends within countries. Instead of simply wanting Indian foods, we're finding that customers are aware of Goan and Keralan food and want to buy these dishes at their local supermarket." In the research, the growing trend to change what they put in their supermarket trolley because of holiday experiences is evident. A total of 42% said this affected their weekly shop choices.Wolf said that some tourist offices are beginning to highlight food as a way of promoting their country to foreign visitors. This trend though must grow still further.

Chicago Led the Way

Chicago led the way eight years ago when it appointed former chef Judith Hines as director of culinary arts and events. She oversees 275 annual food-related events, including its summer-long Stirring Things Up festival (May 1-Oct 31), which features culinary tours, food festivals, farmers' markets and concerts. Special hotel rates are available to visitors during the period.

Although it's impossible to know how many visitors are drawn by food alone, Hines said millions come for the festivals, including the 11-day Taste of Chicago in July, where 3.5 million people consumed 70,000 pounds of ribs and 250,000 slices of pizza last year. That helped boost hotel occupancy to 90% last summer. "Food certainly helps boost tourism. While cultural events like theatre might be a good hook for tourists, it won't appeal to all; the attraction of food is universal" said Hines. "The misperception is that it has to be all five-star fine dining. We have 76 different ethnic neighbourhoods and promote them all. Having really authentic food is part of the attraction."

Chicago's focus on food includes a food concierge in one of the city's largest tourist offices adjacent to a large theatre booking agency. "It's a great tie-up. We explain the food scene to people who are looking for somewhere to eat on their night out." Hines also offers city tours with a difference, with a bus stopping at four local restaurants with diners having a course in each. "It's a fun way to find out about the city's culture and heritage," she explained. Operators claim the last five years has seen a significant change in the eating habits of Brits abroad, with clients shunning the 'chips with everything' restaurants and seeking out more local flavours.This is borne out by World Travel Market's independent research which indicated that 62% of those questioned shunned "glamorous" foreign restaurants and wanted to eat in rustic surroundings with the locals. Only 7% said they would prefer to eat in glamorous surroundings when overseas. Only 15% of those questioned would plump for international cuisine rather than food typical of the area in which they were staying.

Demand for Authentic Experience

"People want an authentic experience," claimed Chris Orme, general manager of Far East specialist Travel Indochina. "We are talking much more about food to people when they book and make it a central part of the holiday, going to local restaurants and experimenting. The availability of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food in the UK means clients want to try the authentic stuff much more. "People have booked particular holidays with us on the strength of the food. We're certainly not an operator that deals with food tours, but eating has certainly become a big interest for our clients."

Long Travel, a specialist in rural Italy and Sicily, claimed around 85% of its clients now asked specifically for food advice when booking. Contracts manager Laura Bell said: "Customers have very high expectations of the food in Italy because it receives so much good press and is always featured in cookery programmes."Getting back to nature and trying out dishes in a traditional setting is a must for our clients. Even the larger hotels we use grow many of their own vegetables and produce wine now."

Restaurant Concierge Service

Mercedes Fehler, marketing manager at upmarket specialist Harlequin Worldwide said demand for local cuisine was so high among its customers the operator had introduced a 'restaurant concierge' service. Customers can contact the operator before departure and the concierge will recommend and make reservations at restaurants around the globe.

"The concierge contacts the hotel the customer is staying in to get advice about the places to eat nearby and will make bookings. It's a very popular service in long-haul destinations," said Fehler. "Short haul, people tend to get out and look themselves. Hunting around for a place to eat in Europe is something people are more comfortable with."

Meanwhile, Caribbean specialist Carib Tours runs a 'food evening' each year for regular clients to showcase the best local restaurants. "People in the UK have access to some of the best restaurants in the world and so they won't settle for poor food when they're away," said Carib Tours managing director Paul Cleary.

"The four aspects of a holiday that are important to our clients are weather, beach, luxury and food. "The trend in the Caribbean has been for 'big name' European restaurants and chefs to open in the last few years. Clients want to eat in them, maybe as a special occasion. They also want to get out and eat locally. In Barbados, the Oistin's Fish Fry is a great example, but then it also has The Cliff, one of the world's best restaurants."

The DIY trend has even started to spread long-haul, according the Martin Grass, sales and marketing director of Rex Hotels., which has nine properties in the Caribbean and two in Kenya. "The Caribbean ahs been dominated by the big all-inclusives in the past and people had no need to go out to eat. While that is still very popular with the US market, people from the UK are a bit more adventurous, especially to the eastern Caribbean. Islands such as Barbados and Antigua have fantastic local restaurants and are seen as safe to venture out at night. The vast majority of our business from the UK is now room-only, because people want to sample the food and it is comparatively cheap to eat out."

But food has become a central part of the overseas marketing for nations around the world. Earlier this year, Portugal teamed up with Harrods to promote its national dishes through the upmarket stores famous food hall. For the European destination, the message aims to attract not only those on traditional packages, but also the major villa holiday market predominantly served by the low-cost carriers, since these people eat out more.

Portuguese National Tourist Office director José António Preto da Silva said: "Our cuisine is now one of the key attractions for UK visitors, with each region of Portugal offering unique cooking style as well as local specialities. "Mealtimes are highly valued by the Portuguese, providing a leisurely opportunity to indulge in good food and good wine while catching up with family and friends, and this is a tradition we encourage visitors to join in to capture the true essence of our country and people."

The Rise of Food Festivals

Similarly, Singapore hosts an annual food festival each July celebrating a different aspect of its culture. This year (it's 14th) marks the 40th anniversary of the country's independence, majoring on what it is perhaps best known for by foreign visitors &endash; its hawker (street) food.

Tee Yen Chew, Singapore Tourism Board's Area Director for Northern & Western Europe said: "Singaporeans are passionate about food and eating. In almost every corner of the island, you will find an endless variety of food served hot or cold at any hour of the day or night. Singapore's cultural diversity is very much reflected in the variety of local food it has to offer &endash; Chinese, Malay, Indian, Peranakan and Eurasian. It is very important to communicate this to people thinking about visiting Singapore. It's not just a fusion of east and west, it the country's unique cultural tapestry."

Closer to home, VisitScotland has begun to promote food alongside its mainstay messages such as golf and outdoor pursuits. The country has also introduced a national quality assurance scheme, Eat Scotland, aimed at raising standards and educating hoteliers and restaurant owners about the important part food plays for visitors.

Key Driver in Scotland

Sector development manager for VisitScotland Ewan Fairweather said: "Food is a key driver in the holidaymaking decision. We want those in the industry to shout about their food, be proud and enthusiastic. That will enrich the visiting experience."

Las Vegas, meanwhile, is a good example of how destinations have changed the emphasis of their food product as tourism has changed. Food has always been part of the gambling city's attraction from the opening of the first all-you-can-eat buffet &endash; the $1 Midnight Chuck Wagon at the El Rancho hotel. But it was quantity over quality promoted to its original domestic clientele. Very often, food and drink was considered a loss-leader by the casinos, with establishments giving it away to attract gamblers. The arrival of high-rolling punters, overseas tourists and large business travel contingent means it now boasts some the best restaurants in the US. Today, Las Vegas is home to three restaurants that have earned the AAA Five Diamond rating: the Bellagio's Le Cirque and Picasso and The Mirage's Renoir.

"Dining in Las Vegas has evolved significantly from the days of the all you can eat buffets," said Melanie Jones, of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau in the UK. "Las Vegas has now become synonymous with gourmet cuisine and most of the top chefs have now opened restaurants in the city from Wolfgang Puck to Alain du Casse. Even Guy Savoy who allegedly vowed, in the past, that he would not consider opening a restaurant in the US."

For further information telephone Jane Larcombe on +44 (0)1892 785071 or email jane@janelarcombecommunications.com \