Big fu­ture for food tourism

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - FOOD & DRINK IRELAND - Joe McNamee talks to John Mulc­ahy, head of tourism with Fáilte Ire­land

Fáilte Ire­land out­lines why food and tourism trails have been an in­stant hit with vis­i­tors to Ire­land, while lo­cal groups are ex­pand­ing their peak sea­sons with a new menu of ac­tiv­i­ties in the ‘shoul­der’ months of April, May and Oc­to­ber.

Chances are you may well have heard, in re­cent times, some men­tion of the phrase ‘food tourism’.

If you hap­pen to work in the tourism and hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor, you will prob­a­bly have heard of lit­tle else for, right now, it ap­pears to be the only show in town, with every­one in the in­dus­try in hot pur­suit of the holy grail of what the World Travel Or­gan­i­sa­tion con­tin­ues to iden­tify as the fastest grow­ing seg­ment of the global tourism mar­ket.

Put sim­ply, food tourism is when the tourist is drawn to a des­ti­na­tion specif­i­cally be­cause of that des­ti­na­tion’s food and food cul­ture. This type of tourist is es­pe­cially at­trac­tive be­cause he or she will tend to spend up to one third more than the av­er­age on food, bev­er­ages and food cul­ture ex­pe­ri­ences such as food tours, cook­ery classes and vis­it­ing cen­tres of culi­nary her­itage.

Ac­cord­ing to Erik Wolf, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and founder at the World Food-Travel As­so­ci­a­tion and the man cred­ited glob­ally with in­vent­ing the con­cept of food tourism, the two most im­por­tant fac­tors for the growth of food tourism has been the growth of food me­dia (broad­cast and print) and the spread of the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia which has given rise to a shared pas­sion for food in or­di­nary peo­ple that never pre­vi­ously ex­isted and there is no sign of this pas­sion abat­ing any time soon.

De­spite our su­perla­tive pro­duce and al­ways im­prov­ing restau­rant sec­tor, we have yet to make a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on this thriv­ing in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. For a coun­try that mar­kets it­self in­ter­na­tion­ally as the ‘Food Is­land’, should our con­tin­u­ing ab­sence from this ev­er­grow­ing club not start to be­come a cause for con­cern. If there’s one man who can pro­vide the an­swers, it’s John Mulc­ahy, Head of Food Tourism, Hos­pi­tal­ity Ed­u­ca­tion & Stan­dards at Fáilte Ire­land.

“If by ‘food tourism’ you are re­fer­ring to the peo­ple who travel here pri­mar­ily for our food of­fer­ing or for our food cul­ture,” Mulc­ahy says, “then, no, Ire­land def­i­nitely hasn’t ar­rived yet as a food tourism des­ti­na­tion but we are on a journey to be­com­ing one and all that we have been do­ing to date has been about lay­ing a foun­da­tion for when that hap­pens and we can carve out a role for our­selves in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. One dif­fi­culty is the ma­jor­ity of other des­ti­na­tions around the world are try­ing to do ex­actly the same thing, po­si­tion them­selves as food tourism des­ti­na­tions.

Food & tourism strat­egy

“Given our size and our re­sources, we can’t com­pete, so for me it’s much more about get­ting the ‘ food in tourism’ right, that tourists who ar­rive in Ire­land, ar­rive with a re­ally good chance of be­ing able to ex­pe­ri­ence good food no mat­ter where they go. For me, that’s the gig at the mo­ment, try­ing to do that at scale and I would imag­ine that, if we suc­cess­fully do that over the next three to five years, that will cre­ate cir­cum­stances where peo­ple will ac­tu­ally travel here specif­i­cally for food.”

How­ever, there is a caveat, which is why Mulc­ahy is so nu­anced in his anal­y­sis of the sec­tor.

“Any­one you talk to will tell you it is 8- 10% of the over­all tourist mar­ket that trav­els specif­i­cally for food. [In­ter­na­tional food tourism guru] Erik Wolf says that will in­crease but, log­i­cally, even if it in­creases by a 100%, that is still is only 20% of the over­all mar­ket.

“The real prize is in the vast ma­jor­ity of tourists that sim­ply want to en­joy a re­ally nice food ex­pe­ri­ence as part of the over­all hol­i­day. And if we do that and get known for that … a prime ex­am­ple is Peru, which has been devel­op­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a food tourism des­ti­na­tion. Peru is a coun­try of 30 mil­lion peo­ple which is hop­ing to reach a tar­get of 3 mil­lion tourists over­all this year, which is less than half of what we are bring­ing in here. And of that 3 mil­lion, 300,000 are peo­ple trav­el­ling for food and yet Peru is out there as the place to go for top of the range, cut­ting edge food — but it’s only 300,000 peo­ple we’re talk­ing about!”

Food Champions

One of the ini­tia­tives be­gun un­der Mulc­ahy’s watch is the Food Champions pro­gramme. Pig­gy­back­ing on the sud­den spurt in growth of the con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish food world over the last decade and the emer­gence of a whole new cadre of in­volved in­di­vid­u­als, the pro­gramme was de­signed to tap into their po­ten­tial, ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge to build net­works within the coun­try and help to spread the gospel of food tourism, at home and abroad.

“Given that Fáilte Ire­land’s remit is to cre­ate jobs and cre­ate rev­enue and to con­trib­ute to the econ­omy of the coun­try, what we do has got to ef­fect ev­ery par­ish, every­one has got to feel the ben­e­fit. The pro­gramme was recog­nis­ing that there was such an in­cred­i­ble amount hap­pen­ing on the ground around Ire­land,” says Mulc­ahy, “and we knew there were in­di­vid­u­als out there, not well known but recog­nised in their own com­mu­ni­ties, whether that be their ‘so­cial com­mu­nity’ or their ‘ in­dus­try com­mu­nity’ in the widest sense, these peo­ple would al­ways be known as be­ing re­ally into food. One of the things about the food champions net­work i s iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple on the ground that peo­ple will lis­ten to when they start talk­ing about food. What we wanted to do was try and iden­tify those peo­ple and see if we could find a way of work­ing with them to ben­e­fit Ire­land Inc.. so to speak.

“It works in two ways,” says Mulc­ahy, “I get in­tel­li­gence from the ground which helps us frame what we are do­ing but equally we are able to cre­ate a net­work for con­vinc­ing oth­ers on the ground that are maybe not in tourism or even food that some­thing can be done around food in tourism. Our food champions keep com­ing up with great ideas of what will work or not. We had a meet­ing in Lim­er­ick last night and Ruth Healy [ pro­pri­etor of Urru Culi­nary Store, in Ban­don, Co Cork] has come up with the idea for ‘ Cork Char­ac­ter Cafes’, where about 18 cafes around the county are try­ing to de­velop a net­work shar­ing Cork’s food story and the char­ac­ters be­hind that and do­ing it through themed weeks, through pop ups, cel­e­bra­tion events.

“One she did re­cently was the Milleens week, where all the par­tic­i­pat­ing cafes and restau­rants served up dishes fea­tur­ing Milleens cheese [ the iconic Ir­ish farm­house cheese cre­ated by the re­cently de­ceased Veronica Steele that kick­started the mod­ern Ir­ish spe­cialty food move­ment].”

“What’s re­ally neat about this is, it is a com­mu­nity liv­ing it, par­tic­i­pat­ing in it and there is no cost at all. These peo­ple in the com­mu­nity want to be there and to be a part of this net­work. It is a bril­liant idea — iden­tify these com­mu­ni­ties and let them do their thing and, in do­ing that, you are in­creas­ing an aware­ness of the food in the com­mu­nity be­cause there is still, to a cer­tain ex­tent, that mind­set that we still want to buy the cheap chicken but we learn through sto­ries like the but­ter roads in Cork [a new ini­tia­tive re­cently launched by a group of restau­rants, ho­tels and other hos­pi­tal­ity ven­tures op­er­at­ing along the old But­ter Roads of North Cork] which had been largely for­got­ten about ex­cept for a few evan­ge­lists. All of sud­den, tourists hear about this and they—for­give the pun—eat it up.

Cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence

“Food be­comes em­bed­ded with all these other nice things, eat­ing, meet­ing lo­cals and ev­ery­thing else around it. They’re eat­ing Cork cul­ture right there. It is that sort of ac­tiv­ity, try­ing to cre­ate a ‘food’ com­mu­nity that is in­volved in pro­mot­ing the area.

“I also firmly be­lieve that we need to look at peo­ple in other in­dus­tries who don’t see them­selves as hav­ing a role in tourism. In the ru­ral com­mu­nity, farm­ers don’t be­lieve they have a role when in fact they do. They main­tain the land­scape the tourist wants to con­sume. They are pro­vid­ing the back­drop for the place in which tourist is trav­el­ling in and en­gag­ing with.

“In­creas­ingly, I hear from mar­kets over­seas that they are re­ally in­ter­ested in ac­tiv­i­ties such as a walk in the farm with the farmer’s wife or farmer — to talk about what he or she does and then to head back back to the farm­house kitchen for a home­made scone and a cup of tea is so valu­able for that tourist. It is an ex­pe­ri­ence that is heavy with cul­ture, with au­then­tic­ity.

“Our great net­work of food champions keeps com­ing up with great ideas of what will work or not

“A great ex­am­ple is the guys [ Kay and Paddy Cooney] who make Derg [Ir­ish farm­house] cheese. That’s a great story, farm­ers who have sur­plus milk so they de­cide to make cheese. The next thing is peo­ple want to see the cheese and where and how it is made. Can you imag­ine, you were in your home in a ma­jor Euro­pean city like Frank­furt just the day be­fore and now you are sit­ting there next to Lough Derg, eat­ing their cheese and drink­ing a glass of wine, talk­ing to the peo­ple who made the cheese. The whole thing is just gor­geous, look­ing out over the lake.

“What is or­di­nary to us is of real value to the tourist and if we can find a way of mak­ing that avail­able to the visi­tor, no one can copy that be­cause it has to hap­pen in Derg, on the field, right there, and so it be­comes hugely au­then­tic. You have to come here to ex­pe­ri­ence it — you can’t put it on a trade stand in Dus­sel­dorf!”

With 1,647,408 souls troop­ing through its doors, the Guin­ness Store­house, in Dublin, re­mains the num­ber one tourist at­trac­tion in the coun­try fol­lowed by the Cliffs of Mo­her, with 1,427, 166 vis­i­tors in 2016.

“The strat­egy also looks at what is hap­pen­ing in visi­tor at­trac­tions from the point of view of the food of­fer­ing. Anec­do­tally, we hear that it is not great, that they don’t carry the Ir­ish food to a stan­dard on a par with many other places in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor. The Guin­ness Store­house, in fair­ness, doesn’t do a bad job, they fea­ture the Water­ford Blah and Ir­ish beef. These are the dishes peo­ple look for and they pro­mote them. I’m less wor­ried about the Store­house than other large vol­ume places like the Cliffs of Mo­her or Blar­ney Cas­tle or even the Jame­son Dis­tillery down in Mi­dle­ton.

Top 20 des­ti­na­tions

“What I’m try­ing to get at is if we can get the top 20 des­ti­na­tions — the visi­tor hubs at­tract­ing 4-5m vis­i­tors — if we can cre­ate de­mand in these places so that the tourists then walk in to other places and ask is there any ‘Ir­ish’ food here — that’s the gig! Any busi­ness is there to make a profit and, if there is no de­mand from tourists, they are not go­ing to sup­ply it, so we are try­ing to cre­ate de­mand but also make sure there is sup­ply com­ing in as well, that Siob­han’s [ Ní Ghair­bith] St Tola’s cheese [from Co Clare] is avail­able down in the lo­cal restau­rant. That is out of our area of ex­per­tise but, by def­i­ni­tion, state agen­cies like ours now work more closely with BIM and Bord Bia; we are do­ing that, look­ing at dis­tri­bu­tions sys­tems that peo­ple like Bord Bia are pro­mot­ing and get­ting those prod­ucts on to the plate of the tourist. That type of work tends to be hid­den, we haven’t shouted about it but it’s hap­pen­ing more and more.

“We are work­ing very closely with BIM on Taste the At­lantic Trail, up around Done­gal, Sligo, Mayo, link­ing their shell­fish pro­duc­ers with pubs and restau­rants and a whole strat­egy is com­ing out soon to bring that all the way down the Wild At­lantic way; now we want to scale it up. Again, it’s un­der the wa­ter stuff but it’s hav­ing an ef­fect over the last two years.”

An­other Fáilte Ire­land idea has been to co- opt US food videog­ra­phers Daniel Klein, a for­mer chef and food ac­tivist, and Mirra Fine, a film­maker, who work as The Per­re­nial Plate, a web- based doc­u­men­tary out­fit who roam the world film­ing what they en­ti­tle ‘ ad­ven­tures in sus­tain­able eat­ing’ and who have spent much re­cent time in Ire­land.

“Their films have been very use­ful in get­ting peo­ple up to speed, es­pe­cially in Ire­land. Ir­ish peo­ple are watch­ing films of Ire­land and say­ing, ‘I never knew,’ they are tak­ing a bit of pride out of it, the re­al­i­sa­tion that an Amer­i­can videog­ra­pher is look­ing at stuff in plain sight to us and it’s only then that we look and re­alise, that’s us, that’s some­thing re­ally, re­ally spe­cial!”

Craft brew­ers at Brú Brewery in Meath. The com­pany won four Gold Medals and a Coun­try Win­ner award at the 2016 World Beer Awards.

John Mulc­ahy, Head of Food Tourism, Hos­pi­tal­ity Ed­u­ca­tion & Stan­dards at Fáilte Ire­land.

Ser­vice with a smile: Fáilte Ire­land’s re­search has re­peat­edly shown that vis­i­tors to Ire­land are look­ing for an ex­pe­ri­ence that blends great food with cul­ture, au­then­tic­ity, and gen­uine hos­pi­tal­ity.

Sheri­dans Ir­ish Food Fes­ti­val, a pop­u­lar an­nual visi­tor at­trac­tion in Co Meath.

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