Culinary tourism: Traveling 'foodies' bring about emerging trend


It can be as simple as the smell of a hot pretzel on a New York street; the first bite of warm, sugary beignets in New Orleans; or a plate of steaming lobster on the coast of Maine. Often, its the food we most remember from our travels.

With the rise of celebrity chefs, the popularity of TV cooking shows and a growing interest in regional cuisine, an increasing number of Americans -- some call them foodies -- are passionate about cooking and eating. And, they love to travel.

There are foodies who plan their eating on a vacation even before they leave town, said Erik Wolf, president of the International Culinary Tourism Association, a nonprofit group of food and tourism professionals.

The French and Italians long have recognized how food helps influence travel decisions, and North American destinations finally are catching on, said Wolf, whose Portland, Ore.-based organization seeks to promote culinary tourism, or experiencing a place through its food.

Everyone eats, whether you are in Nepal or New York, so every destination has potential. It depends whether the destination has the vision to take the initiative and view food as an attraction and to package it, Wolf said.

Chicago food fests

Chicago became a leader in culinary tourism when, eight years ago, the Office of Tourism appointed Judith Hines, a chef and caterer, as director of culinary arts and events.

Hines oversees 250 annual food-related events, including Winter Delights, a low-season program that combines cultural and food activities, and Stirring Things Up, May 1 to Oct. 31 this year, another event that features culinary tours, food festivals, farmers markets and concerts. Stirring Things Up is packaged with special hotel rates.

Although its impossible to know how many visitors are drawn by food alone, Hines said that 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.

Chicago hotel occupancy grew to 90% last summer, and some of that can be attributed to Taste of Chicago, she said.

Food can help boost tourism, said Hines. But the misperception is that it has to be four-star, and it doesnt have to be. We have 76 different ethnic neighborhoods. Having really authentic food is part of the attraction.

Not just Canadian bacon

Canada is the North American destination that has researched the U.S. culinary tourism phenomenon most extensively, according to Wolf.

A 2000 study by the Canadian Tourism Commission shows why some destinations are salivating over the potential of culinary tourists: It estimated that 21.6 million Americans are food and wine enthusiasts. Most are over age 34, live in adult-only households and are more affluent than the typical American traveler, with an average household income of $76,600, compared with $65,200 for the typical leisure traveler to Canada.

And because of the surge of traveling baby boomers, the number of U.S. wine and food aficionados who want to travel to Canada is projected to jump from 5.5 million today to 7.5 million by 2025. The findings led the Canadian Tourism Commission to target culinary tourism as an emerging market.

The commission appointed a committee of food and tourism professionals to help create promotions, said Monica Campbell-Hoppe, a CTC spokeswoman in Los Angeles. Canadian chefs now routinely travel to the U.S. to cook for media and trade events.

Americans think of Canada as a place of clean cities and beautiful scenery -- and a place to shop. We want them to think of food, fashion and culture, as well, she said.

Sideways to Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara County is among the destinations cashing in on the phenomenon, thanks to Sideways, the Oscar-nominated film that showed picture-postcard scenes of the regions vineyards, with plenty of shots of fine dining, as well.

Were capitalizing on the buzz, Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau, told delegates at the International Culinary Tourism Conference in San Francisco.

We had quiet but steady growth as a wine and food destination, but last fall [with the release of Sideways] we hit the big time. It put Santa Barbara on the map, and made culinary tourism an important niche for us.

The county used the movie as a centerpiece for 2005 marketing campaigns, releasing a brochure, Savor the Flavors, listing cooking classes, farmers markets, organic farms, food and wine events, and wineries.

The Claremont Farms Lavender Co. in Los Olivos, Calif., which is included on Santa Barbaras Sideways map.It printed 25,000 Sideways maps, showing roads taken by the characters Miles and Jack in the movie. The result is a 300% jump in visitations at the countys wine-tasting rooms and record-breaking hotel occupancies in February, Santa Barbaras low season.

Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post restaurant and winery featured in the film, said the restaurant is mobbed and business is up 42%. Sales of its Highliner Pinot Noir, also featured in the movie, jumped 400%.

Frisco restaurants rate

San Francisco has long reaped the benefits of its reputation as one of the top restaurant towns in the U.S. Surveys show visitors rank food as a feature they most like about the city, said Diane DeRose, vice president of marketing for the citys convention and visitors bureau.

The city hasnt rested on its laurels. In the last two years, the bureau and Visa created two events using food to stimulate business in the slow season: Dine-About-Town and the San Francisco Crab Festival, held in January and February, respectively. Thirty-seven restaurants offer special menus at discount prices for Dine-About-Town, and hotels create packages. The Crab Festival features crab menus and events.

At San Franciscos tourist hot spot, the Ferry Building, tourists join locals at gourmet stores and at the twice-weekly farmers market.

In May, bakers started rolling out loaves of sourdough bread in front of huge windows in the heart of Fishermans Wharf, where millions of tourists pass each year, at the citys newest attraction, a 22,000-square-foot Boudin Bakery.

The makers of the original San Francisco sourdough opened the $20 million facility of demonstration kitchens, a restaurant, a gift shop and a museum tracing the history of San Francisco through its local foods, according to Sharon Duvall, Boudins co-chairman.

And dont forget Oregon

In the U.S., Oregon is among the states joining the niche, making it central to its $4 million marketing budget.

Were incorporating our wine and food products in all our marketing and featuring our chefs and vintners as key players in tourism, said Holly Macfee, director of consumer marketing for Travel Oregon. We see huge growth potential in culinary tourism, especially because the foodies are affluent and high-yield travelers.

Cynthia Billette, president of Columbia Crossroads, a tour operator in Portland, two years ago put together culinary tours of the Pacific Northwest, focusing on chocolate, cheese-making, wine and produce.

Columbia Crossroads added visits with local chefs to its nonculinary tours because the growing interest in food seems to cut across all economic lines, Billette said.

To contact reporter Laura Del Rosso, send e-mail to [email protected].

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