At the press conference of Alimentaria, an international food and drinks exhibition held biennially in Barcelona, Spain, it was emphasised time and again that tourism, gastronomy and food will become the three major pillars of economic growth for the country.
“Spain’s food and drink industry is a strategic cornerstone of the country’s economy and a key for its diversification into solid sectors that represent the pillars of future economic growth,” Pedro Astals, president of the Spanish Federation of Food and Beverages Industries, says as he provided an in-depth analysis of the sector.
Despite suffering a minor setback in 2012 as a result of the second economic crisis, the food and beverage industry in Spain has managed sustained growth over the last 20 years. The industry’s turnover is equivalent to 7.6 percent of the country’s GDP and represents 14 percent of industrial sales.
“The sector also represents a source of employment for Spain, constituting 20 percent of industrial employment and providing jobs for almost 440,000 in 2012,” Mr Astals added.
During his presentation, he also showed how a shift in focus towards export has helped the industry maintain its growth. “Exports currently account for 28.5 percent of turnover in the Spanish food and beverage sector and, if this rate continues, it could reach 40 percent before the end of the decade.”
In comparison, France, which relies heavily on domestic consumption, was more affected by the weakening demand in Europe and reduced spending power.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the industry has been earmarked as a key focus area and even more so for tourism, given that it is a main economic driver that is ranked ahead of the food and beverage industry. What is perhaps intriguing is that the organisers of the show believe that the two should come together. How can these two very different industries complement each other and drive one another forward?
The answer may lie in gastronomy.
On the surface, it seems simple. Gastronomy is the study of food and culture, which naturally brings the two segments together—food and tourism (experiencing culture).
In recent years, as the distances between the different parts of the world shrink and travel becomes more affordable, gastronomic tours have become more popular. In a study titled Gastronomic Tourism: Implications for Singapore that was conducted in 2013, Grace May-Ann Chang Mazza concluded that “With gastronomic tourism gaining popularity and proving itself as a lucrative sub-segment of the tourist industry, countries with unique culinary products and cultures can take advantage of the distinct experience when developing their tourism strategy.”
Research conducted by Mintel showed that of the 160 million leisure travellers in the US, 27.3 million (17 percent) can be considered culinary travellers. Instead of visiting a country and simply sampling the food offerings available, culinary travellers are identified as those that participate in activities such as following food or wine trails and engaging in gourmet food shopping to create memorable experiences.
It is apparent that culinary tourism can help promote growth for the tourism industry by enticing people who are interested in sampling the tastes and flavours of a foreign place. However, the important question remains, what does this mean for the food and beverage industry?
Images by Dennis Wong, Hong Kong
Most people naturally assume that culinary tourism has a direct relation to the restaurant and hospitality sectors, but little to do with food manufacturers.
In the book The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries, authors Ken Albala and Gary Allen provided an detailed explanation on the matter.
“Culinary tourism looks beyond gourmet dishes to foodways, the total network of activities surrounding food and eating. This network includes procurement (obtaining food), preservation, preparation, presentation, consumption styles, contexts for eating and cleaning up and symbolic performance.”
More importantly, the authors said that different people attach different meaning to food and because of that, it carries memories of people and events that are significant in their lives.
During a panel discussion on food, gastronomy and tourism, Doug Duda, former president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and a pioneer in culinary tourism, shared that one of the most common questions people ask him after he has returned home was whether he was able to cook a few signature dishes from the country for them to try.
This has naturally become a challenge for him because some of the ingredients required are only available at their country of origin. Nonetheless, he feels that this need not be the case. “People want to relive the experiences from their travels because those are good memories, so the food industry can look to facilitate that by making the ingredients that are necessary, available.”
He added that when people walk pass an aisle at the grocery store and see a sauce or food they have tasted on their trips, it will bring back memories and entice them to buy it. While these people are not actively looking for the ingredients, they will still be swayed to buy them when they see them.
Perhaps one approach for the food and beverage industry to consider is to make products that are unique to a country more prominent and available. In some ways, there are companies which are already doing that. At the duty free shops at Thailand’s Suvarnbhumi Airport, boxes of ready-to-eat mango sticky rice are available for tourists to take home to share with their loved ones.
At the same time, the cultural element of gastronomy should not be underappreciated as it can bring value to food and beverage manufacturers as well.
Cascajares is a Spanish company that specialises in high-end prepared products. The company started out modestly as a chicken farm that offers a traditional rural product—the capon. Their big break came when the Spanish royal family chose their capon as the main dish for the marriage of future King and Queen d’Asturias in 2004.
Sensing a great opportunity, Alfonso Gimenez, president of the company, decided to replicate the recipe and make it available to the public. “We want to give people a chance to taste the main dish in the royal wedding reception. People are interested to get a taste of what the royal family eats.”
The product was a hit and the company has continued to work with renowned chefs to recreate symbolic dishes in ready-to-eat forms. Venturing across the ocean, it has developed a special turkey product for the American market which uses it for thanksgiving.
Food is an important element of a country’s culture and a window for people to experience and learn about the traditions and heritage of other places. Manufacturers can grasp onto this curiosity and create products that will stir interest, to open up new markets.
Joan Roca, chef at the El Celler de Can Roca, a three Michelin star restaurant that has recently been voted the best in the world, said that “the award is more important to the territory, Barcelona, Girona and Spain, than the restaurant, because it can help drive the other industries.”
As people flock to his restaurant in Girona, they will have a chance to visit the place as well. That will help drive tourism in the region and country. At the same time, the food and beverage industry can participate in this by offering products that tourists can take home, as well as entering export markets to offer these same people items that will remind them of their experience.
In many ways, the tourism and food and beverage industry can work hand in hand to promote growth. Across the world, many countries have already taken steps to provide value for food brands through the organisation of major food festivals and shows. There is room for promotion and marketing efforts to go much further.
In a world where we see the diversification of dining options in every country, such as Thai and Vietnamese food in the US, would it not make sense to provide food products that consumers can enjoy at home as well?