Having just returned from visiting Japan and having been thoroughly spoiled by the country’s unique culinary culture, I found my interest in exotic foods and cooking styles renewed. I have enjoyed such experiences before, but never made it a specific quest. This time was different, and I’m glad I finally joined the ranks of international food travelers.
Food travel – or culinary tourism, as it is sometimes called – is a fast growing trend, and not only among seasoned globetrotters who seek new perspectives on their journeys. Widely popular TV shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” or Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods” have put food exploration high on many people’s bucket list. And travel agencies are more than happy to comply.
Over the past decade or so, food-themed vacationing has become a trendsetter in the leisure travel industry. According to the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA), a consulting firm for specialty travel organizers, interest in local, regional or national cuisine, heritage and culture is at an all-time high. And this is by no means limited to gourmet dining or fine wine sampling but extends to all things related to food production, preparation and consumption as well as environmental issues like climate change and sustainability.
“A culinary adventure can be a welcome change from the standard travel itinerary,” says Sabah Karimi, a travel writer for U.S. News. “The goal of culinary tourism is to educate and inspire food and wine enthusiasts while giving the traveler a chance to explore the local area and learn about local food trends, cooking techniques and food history.”
At a recent business conference, sponsored by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) in Quebec, the rising popularity of culinary travel and its impact on the travel industry as a whole was the main topic. A survey that was conducted for the event showed that over 70 percent of travel itineraries now included food and beverage-themed components.
Food is a leading draw in travel these days, industry analysts say. It transcends borders, builds bridges between cultures, and connects us as human beings with the planet and one another.
Not everyone, however, is overly enthused about this newfound love for culinary discovery.
While food-related tourism is growing, food-borne illnesses are also on the rise globally and have been identified as a major public health concern by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
At destinations where accommodations, hygiene and sanitation, medical care and water quality are of a high standard, there are relatively few health risks for travelers. However, exposure to infectious agents and contaminated food and water, combined with the absence of appropriate medical facilities, can make traveling in remote regions particularly hazardous, the WHO warns.
Obviously, exposing yourself to the unknown, whether it concerns your surroundings or your dinner plate, always carries a certain amount of risk. But safety should come first, wherever you go and regardless of what you do. While travel is supposed to be fun, it is not a time for recklessness. If your experience is unpleasant because of a stomach ache or much worse, you probably won’t give it another try. And what a shame that would be…
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.