Big future for food tourism
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!”
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.
“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.