Could food and drink save the tourism industry?


As we emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is hosting a free public webinar exploring the role of food and drink in reimagining New Zealand tourism.

Will food tourism facilitate our reconnections with friends and families throughout New Zealand, and provide interesting diversions on our road trips through the country, or will it just be for the ‘foodies’ who can afford luxury experiences?

Will food foraging and ‘pick your own’ opportunities provide money-saving opportunities at a time of financial insecurity for many? In the longer term, with lab-grown proteins – including artificial meat – more widely available, what role will farms – and farm experiences – have?

Understanding food tourism

Food tourism is about authenticity, culture and motivations, which represent the origin, history, place and language of a destination, argue Associate Professor Ian Yeoman and colleagues.

It can take various forms, including wine, beer and food festivals, regional produce showcases and visits to places of food production, be they wineries, breweries, farms or factories.

Food tourism can offer an insight into current food production practices or provide a window into past practices, through heritage attractions and museums. In many ways, it is the opportunity to have a ‘taste of place’ and in so doing connect with the people, products and stories of regions.

Yeoman, co-editor of the book The Future of Food Tourism, is from the University’s Wellington School of Business and Government and will be taking part in the webinar.

Another participant, Lincoln University food and wine tourism expert Dr Joanna Fountain, says: “For food producers, sharing food direct with visitors most obviously offers the opportunity to sell direct to consumers, therefore shortening the supply chain. Perhaps more importantly, it allows producers to share their processes, stories and history with consumers, providing an opportunity to educate and build brand loyalty based on provenance.”

In many regions of the world, food and drink are a central component of regional heritage, she says. You only have to consider the wine regions of France – Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy – to understand how the landscape, heritage and way of life is steeped in the history of wine production.

In New Zealand, the agricultural, pastoral and even industrial heritage of regions forms an important component of food and drink identity and branding. For example, the wine producers of Central Otago highlight the region’s gold-mining heritage in their brands, stories and tourism experiences, with wine described as ‘the new gold’.

Fountain argues that for tourists – whether they be international or domestic visitors, on an extended stay in a region or on a shorter excursion – food and drink experiences offer the chance to test and taste new products, learn more about food and wine production practices from producers, and get a deeper understanding of places.

Food is about people and sharing; offering food and drink to guests has long been a central tenet of hospitality, and eating a meal together is a social occasion. A central tenet of New Zealand tourism is the concept of manaakitanga, a term that at its heart refers to the need for reciprocal hospitality and being generous to others based on respect for different people and cultural practices. In Māori culture, the provision of food is a critical component of the expression of manaakitanga to guests. In New Zealand, where ‘being kind’ has been a key component of the country’s Covid-19 response, manaakitanga should be a central component of all food and drink experiences, says Fountain.

The trends that will shape the future of food tourism

Visa Wellington On a Plate (Visa WOAP) is New Zealand’s most successful food festival and an exemplar to the rest of the world, says Yeoman.

It was created as a way to profile regional produce through restaurants and events, educating both chefs and locals about the bounty of local produce available, says Sarah Meikle, its director and the webinar’s third participant.

Two foodie trends, fluid identity and simplicity, explain Visa WOAP’s success, says Yeoman.

Fluid identity is the desire for experimentation; a desire to try the unusual. Here, tourists seek novelty and want to sample experiences; they cannot be labelled. They are a type of hybrid tourist, wanting a little bit of everything. 

Visa WOAP offers a selection of events, ranging from free public lectures, competitions and cookery classes to night markets, immersive dining experiences, a beer festival and much more. Award-winning events have included Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate, where celebrity chef Martin Bosley mentors prisoners to create a fine dining experience at the local prison (thereby taking on a social responsibility dimension).

An alternative to fluid identity is simplicity. This trend is more pronounced because of Covid-19.

Paul Flatters and Michael Willmott in the Harvard Business Review argue that in most developed economies pre-recession consumer behaviour was based on uninterrupted prosperity, driven by growth in real levels of disposal incomes, low inflation, stable employment and booming property prices. Therefore, new appetites emerged in which a consumer could afford to be curious and tourists shelled out for enriching and fun experiences in exotic locations.

Covid-19 has changed this, propelling tourist trends into slowdown, halting or even reversing the trajectory of growth in world tourism. During an economic slowdown, tourists tend to travel less, stay near home (increasing domestic tourism) and seek simplicity, value, meeting locals, lots of free time and bargains.

Here, the focus on food may be at a more basic level; something akin to getting back to nature, reconnecting with families, sharing food, a desire for the untamed but in a familiar environment. From a Visa WOAP perspective, it’s about simple and local dishes, whether it’s eating the cuisine of two chefs collaborating together to create a meal  or making bread at the award-winning Clareville Bakery.

Food tourism and domestic tourism: what is the connection?

In the current environment, many tourism commentators and those in the industry have identified that regions and businesses will need to pivot to the domestic market for the coming months and possibly years, says Fountain.

While there has been a substantial amount written about the opportunities this will bring for New Zealand residents to see some of the country’s iconic attractions free of the crowds of visitors, food and drink tourism could offer a significant opportunity for many regions to entice domestic visitors to visit, experience and stay.

Many countries and regions of the world are increasingly recognising the value of food tourism as a tool for regional regeneration and economic diversification. The trends emerging over the lockdown period and the zeitgeist of post-lockdown New Zealand might also lend themselves to expanded opportunities for food tourism, says Fountain.

First, there has been a new emphasis on ‘supporting the local’, with the hashtag #backyourbackyard used to promote local tourism experiences. This emphasis relates to both tourism experiences and local food.

During lockdown, there has been increased interest in what is available from local producers – food, drink, arts and crafts. While to date this has been largely restricted to accessing produce online and having it delivered, as restrictions are lifted it may be that more people would like to head out to meet the makers and producers and buy direct from the farm gate or cottage studio.

Another trend apparent during the lockdown was the re-emergence of appreciation of the slow; home-cooked meals, baking and preserving; more time in the garden; walks and cycle rides with our ‘bubbles’; a heightened appreciation and awareness of birdlife. 

It may be that, as our lives ‘fill up’ again with the usual busyness and noise, there will be demand for trips into the regions to continue with some of these activities. Seeking out artisanal food producers, joining gardening and foraging workshops and attending cooking school classes may be activities that will enable us to relive the best elements of the lockdown experience.

Fountain highlights the fact this period has seen New Zealanders reconnect to our roots – having reaffirmed to us all the importance of friends and family and social connections. 

While this is likely to result in increased travel around visiting friends and relatives, it may also see us connect to our heritage – including, perhaps, the country’s heritage. A nostalgic desire, intensified by our experiencing of the slow, may see parents and grandparents seeking to share with children places and experiences that reflect this simpler way of life – visiting farms, cheese factories, heritage museums, pick-your-own fruit orchards – as New Zealand’s mostly urban dwellers revisit where food comes from, experiencing a rural life much more familiar 40 years ago.

We can excite tourists through food and drink experiences that are innovative, novel and exciting, embracing advancements of science or turning regular experience upside down, says Yeoman.

It must also remain authentic and connected to people, place and one’s individual and communal heritage. Food and drink can be used to connect, to celebrate, endorsing moments of fun and excitement. They have an important role to play in the future of tourism.”

The webinar, part of Wellington School of Business and Government’s reimagination of New Zealand tourism series, is 2–3pm on Wednesday 10 June. Register here.

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