Over the last 10 years, the role food plays in the world of travel has evolved from cast extra to starring role. It's a phenomenon that has been fueled by everything from shows such as the Travel Channel's "No Reservations," to a glut of culinary travel stories in the consumer media, to foodie pics from around the world flooding our social media feeds.
A decade ago, "you had a situation where food tourism wasn't really [on the map]," said Erik Wolf, who founded the World Food Travel Association in Portland, Ore., in 2003. Today, "it's something where journalists around the world are writing about it. It's really gotten quite big."
Wolf estimates that food tourism has grown into a $150 billion industry annually, a figure the association came up with based on internal research.
"The question isn't whether culinary tourism is growing -- which it is, almost exponentially," said CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg. "It's how it's growing. We've evolved from culinary tourism, where travelers merely watched experts in demonstration kitchens, to full-on participatory travel, where travelers get up close and personal with chefs, the products and the process itself. It's travel that embraces a more genuine, authentic experience."
Wolf cites various reasons for its growth, including a greater focus on health and healthy eating, the buying-local movement, the ubiquity of eating and drinking and, of course, the myriad celebrity chef and cooking shows on TV.
A great example of that was "No Reservations," which aired its eighth and final season on the Travel Channel last year. Starring chef Anthony Bourdain, it began the formula of a chef with a big personality traveling the globe in search of authentic and odd foods. Such shows are widely believed to have helped inspire a new generation of traveler, one who is drawn to destinations as much by the palate as by the eyes and ears.
Chef Eric Ripert said that "by traveling and by communicating the culture of where he is visiting through sharing food, [Bourdain] has inspired us to not only travel, but to be adventurous -- to leave the resorts and explore the surroundings and to connect with a culture even more profoundly by sharing food as natives of that destination."
In February, Ripert joined Bourdain on a nationwide "Good vs. Evil" tour meant to capture their different career philosophies. The tour, which started in Las Vegas, will end May 10 in Milwaukee.
"We are seeing more and more people traveling to countries and making sure they have made a reservation at a restaurant there," Ripert said. "They are not only sightseeing when they travel but are now capturing the culture of the destination through eating and dining."
Indeed, in our own culture, food and travel seem to have become indelibly intertwined.
Currently, culinary travel shows account for approximately 20% of the Travel Channel's programming schedule, which includes offerings such as "Man vs. Food" and "Bizarre Foods."
Conversely, meanwhile, the Food Network's schedule is stacked with popular travel shows like "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
What's more, it's rare for an issue of a travel magazine not to feature a food story or two, and food publications are incorporating more travel features, as well. The October issue of Afar magazine was entirely devoted to food as a theme.
"It's kind of the greatest way to explore a country, going from market to market, from restaurant to restaurant," said Tanya Steel, editor in chief of Epicurious.com, an online food publication that began developing original content related to the topic of food and travel in 2005.
Interest in travel-related food content is so strong, Steel said, that the editorial team at Epicurious is looking into expanding its travel coverage.
Given the media's recent deluge of culinary travel content, it's not surprising that making reservations at much-hyped restaurants, seeking out local and authentic eateries, visiting markets and participating in cooking classes have all become quintessential components of the travel experience for many people.
"When people come back from vacation, they never tell me about the churches they visited or the museums," said Regina Charboneau, chef de cuisine for the Mississippi paddlewheeler the American Queen. "They'll talk about the restaurants for days and days. Food has become a major topic."
Charboneau has worked to make the menu on the American Queen representative of the regional cuisines of the destinations the vessel visits. She also strives to incorporate local and sustainable ingredients.
Moreover, she said, passengers are increasingly interested in and aware of food quality onboard.
"You'll always have 20% to 25% who don't care," she said. "But I'd say 75% of people really do care about what they're putting in their bodies."
Travel seller, foodie guide
Foodie culture has taken on a life of its own. Whether it's being in the know about the hottest restaurants around the world (and how to score coveted reservations at them), following favorite chefs on TV or their latest partnerships with hotels or cruise lines, or getting informed about the real and authentic dishes for which destinations are known, travelers are increasingly informed about the culinary experiences available to them wherever they go.
Of course, this means that culinary expertise about a destination is just one more crucial aspect of trip planning, which means a travel seller must spend more time researching and executing an itinerary. But for those agents who have specialized in food and wine travel, it has become an opportunity to add service, value and increased satisfaction to a trip.
"The emphasis on dining reservations for any and every trip, which of course we do for our clients, has become a stronger component on all our trips," said Katie Krinkie, a leisure travel consultant for McCabe World Travel in Sonoma, Calif.
Krinkie said clients are usually looking for a combination of reservations at good restaurants and more authentic, off-the-beaten-path culinary experiences. The latter, she said, are harder to arrange because authenticity and comfortable travel do not always coexist.
"They want to experience the whole scope of what's available at the destination," Krinkie said. "Some of the local, more authentic places are a little more challenging; you want to make sure that it's still comfortable."
Lynda Garrett, president of Alpine Travel in Saratoga, Calif., said she has seen the number of clients coming to her with culinary requests for their travels "dramatically increase." Garrett has been listed on Travel + Leisure's food and wine specialist list since 2003, and she is on Saveur magazine's travel adviser board.
"Within the last five years, I've just seen it really gain potential and keep going up and up and up," Garrett said. For example, she said, she used to book cooking classes in Italy or France maybe once a year, and now she books them several times a year.
So how are clients finding out about all the foodie things to do in the world (other than from photos of drool-inducing meals their friends are posting on Facebook and Instagram)?
"It's friends, it's travel shows, it's travel magazines," Garrett said. "The tourist bureaus are doing a good job getting the names of restaurants and chefs out there. The tourist bureaus are seeing how important this is to people. ... They've really gotten the word out. When you go on their websites, they've got links to different up-to-date foodie blogs and foodie apps."
Wolf said that a number of destinations are tapping into the culinary travel trend with fervor, while others still have room for improvement, and he said that which destinations fall into the two camps is not necessarily intuitive.
For example, he said, countries such as France and Italy that are already known for their cuisine are not as aggressive in food marketing as up-and-coming foodie destinations like Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Scotland and Peru. He said countries such as South Korea, New Zealand and South Africa are examples of destinations with untapped food tourism potential.
Obviously, destination marketing organizations are a good place to start when researching culinary travel, but with so much information out there on food and wine, travel sellers who are looking to court gourmands are stretching their research tentacles in all directions to keep pace.
"I do spend a lot of time researching," Krinkie said, adding that she reaches out to industry friends or other members of the Virtuoso consortium network, of which her agency is a member. "Usually the hotel concierge is involved at some level."
Krinkie also reads Food & Wine magazine and watches the Food Network. She said she gets news and updates from Zagat and OpenTable, as well.
There are countless suppliers that have caught on to the culinary travel trend.
From celebrity chefs flooding Las Vegas with restaurant outposts along the Strip, to cruise lines taking their restaurant offerings to new gourmet heights, to tour operators offering food- and wine-themed tours, it's almost hard to find a supplier who isn't in the foodie game in some way, shape or form.
Cece Drummond, director of tours and on-sites for Virtuoso, ticked off such examples as chef Nobu Matsuhisa partnering with Crystal Cruises or the food and beverage programs on Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant, which highlights French cuisine.
She noted that Virtuoso's hotel suppliers include a roster of 94 Michelin star restaurants in 13 countries.
In the consortium's Travel Dreams 2012 member survey, when agents were asked how they would like to expand their horizons, the No. 1 response was attending cooking school, followed by activities like archaeological exploration, photography instruction and foreign language lessons.
A greater connection to food is what consumers want, too, according to Nico Zenner, president of Brendan Vacations, which partnered with the sustainable food movement Slow Food last year to offer itineraries that incorporate cooking classes, vineyard visits and local market jaunts.
Whenever the company runs a survey about what guests' interests are when they travel, food often ranks No. 1, said Zenner.
"There is a good opportunity for people to experience food while they travel," Zenner said. "In the media, whether that's new media or print media, there is a lot of interest in food, regional food, food that you cannot experience anywhere else. I see more and more of that."
In line with the Slow Food philosophy of focusing on good, local, sustainable food, many of the current trends in culinary travel are headed in that direction.
Farm-to-table cuisine, for example, is a big trend in culinary travel, Wolf said.
It's a trend that embraces all levels of income and travel products, according to Epicurious' Steel.
"There's always going to be a very small subset [of the population] that knows about and can pay for these Michelin-star restaurants," Steel said. "For everyone else, current trends in culinary travel include engaging in culinary classes on the road, for one. The agro-tourism trend is still really big, where you go and work in a farm ... picking olives and making olive oil."
She added that Epicurious has also noticed a big increase in people camping and doing campfires and picnics around the world as a form of more affordable travel.
But they're "still having an elevated cuisine," she said, "and by 'elevated,' I don't mean fancy but ... having a perfect buffalo mozzarella experience."
She noted that the desire to eat better irrespective of budget isn't a notion reserved for adults. Families are also wanting their kids to experience a greater variety of flavors and ingredients while they're traveling, as part of the overall cultural immersion.
Ripert, too, said there was no direct correlation between fine travel cuisine and the cost of a trip.
"The best meal to me means the best experience," he said. "You can't put a price on great experiences. It depends on what you are seeking. If you find it, it can be very special and inexpensive, or it can also be completely over-the-top and high-priced."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.