Interest in culinary travel, from sampling street food to cooking classes with local chefs, has been growing exponentially worldwide. And although Africa is not immediately top of mind for food enthusiasts, the destination should not be overlooked.
That was the word from Julian Asher, founder and managing director of Timeless Africa, at the World Travel Market Africa, which was held in Cape Town from April 19 to 21.
Asher told delegates that Africa is slowly getting on the radar as a culinary destination by travelers looking for more "authentic" travel experiences. Said Asher: "Food is one of the few travel trends that cannot be experienced virtually or online. It remains very authentic and very real."
Pamela McOnie, Cape Fusion Tours, said she started her culinary tourism company at the end of 2002 with a dream of offering culinary tours and wine tours. "I found I was way too early; we were not perceived as either a culinary or a wine destination. It was a hard sell," she said. "I started planting the seed on my regular tours by telling travelers there was so much more to do and see from a food and wine perspective. It seems that finally the seed has grown and we are starting to be perceived by the international press as a great value for money culinary and wine destination."
Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, agreed.
"Culinary tourism in general is on the rise, with travelers wanting to discover and taste new and authentic dishes while enjoying local hospitality. These have all become part of the authentic travel experience," he said. "In South Africa, particularly, the food is vibrant and diverse, making food experiences unique, and the wine scene has gained international recognition, making Africa a foodie hot spot for travelers."
Ryan Rapaport, creative director for Rhino Africa, said that Cape Town in particular has a wide variety and incredible quality when it comes to culinary travel. He mentioned the fine dining scene is one of the best in the world and remains very affordable for international travelers. Rapaport explained that a good example of a unique sensory experience is the Test Kitchen in Cape Town, which offers amazing wine pairing experiences.
But fine dining isn't a priority for most culinary travelers, according to Asher. "When mentioning culinary tourism, most people think four-star, Michelin-rated restaurants. However, the majority of travelers is more interested in authentic and local food experiences," he noted.
Asher explained there are culinary experiences in Africa that you simply won't find anywhere else in the world. "Imagine combining a culinary and cultural experience and go foraging with the bushmen in Tanzania," he said. "Or taste coffee at the place where [the beans were grown] in Africa."
Even the South Africa winelands experience is vastly different than it is in the U.S., said Asher. "South Africa offers a completely different experience where travelers can taste heritage wines as well as experience new techniques."
Asher added that the options in Africa are limitless but that unfortunately the destination doesn't market itself enough as a foodie destination. "This is unfortunate, because food is an important factor when travelers choose a destination."
Darren Humphreys, Travel Sommelier and Safari Pros member, agreed, calling gastronomic tourism the most underrated component of the South African tourism landscape.
Humphreys explained that although most travelers are looking for a day (or maximum two days) culinary experience that comprises a visit to an artisanal food market for local ingredients followed by a cookery course, this is changing rapidly as more aware travelers are looking for widespread and immersive experiences, including foraging, farm stays, etc.
However, McOnie argued it is still not the main reason why people travel to the continent. "We are not a destination where very many people come with a main focus of a culinary holiday," she said. "People travel to Africa with the main drawcard being the safari; the second drawcard is Cape Town. Foodies will then look into doing some culinary activities while they are here, such as a Cape Malay cooking classes with Cass Abrahams; she is the foremost authority on the cuisine and an absolute treat to spend time with to learn about our cuisine."
Sean Kritzinger, co-owner and managing director at Giltedge Travel, said travelers are looking for experiences that are unique; they want to taste something that's typically "African" to fully immerse themselves in the country. He agrees that the U.S. market is not interested in culinary tourism as a whole but in culinary micro-experiences on their vacation. "Most of our U.S. clients still want the safari experience, so while food is an important aspect of their travels, their No. 1 priority is a safari experience, a cultural experience and seeing Cape Town and its famous landmarks like Robben Island," he said.
Asher agreed that a safari experience remains one of the main reasons people travel to Africa. However, he pointed out that food is increasingly becoming an important part of the safari experience, as well. He mentioned that Singita Safari Lodges are devoting a lot of attention to food and are presenting travelers with innovative and contemporary dishes.
Also, African Travel's Banda said: "Even if you stay in a game lodge or remote reserve, we make sure you get memorable culinary experiences. At Victoria Falls Safari Club in Zimbabwe we offer cultural dining experiences in a traditional boma (an open air, pen-like area inside a wooden fence), and in the Masai Mara you get a gourmet bush breakfast.
Banda added: "On days when an early morning game drive is scheduled, guests normally wake up around 5:30 a.m. and depart at 6 a.m. Typically the game drive lasts about three hours. After being outdoors for that long, you work up quite an appetite. Just when you think you are going back to the lodge for breakfast, the ranger pulls into a clearing, and a complete breakfast spread is laid out with tables and tablecloths. The lodge waiters and chefs are on hand to serve fresh coffee and juice, and eggs are made to order over an open fire. There's also a hand-washing station. It is the most peaceful setting, just being out in the wilderness, overlooking the plains, enjoying breakfast. And the settings vary; it can be under a massive baobab tree, with tables set up and picnic blankets, or on a hill overlooking a scenic spot."
Industry players around Africa all agree that culinary options are limitless and that the continent is definitely one to watch on the culinary scene in the years to come.