Over the last two decades, the role of food and gastronomy in tourism has taken on an increasingly important role. This makes inherent sense as through the act of eating a tourist literally consumes the local heritage he or she has travelled to enjoy. We spend more time eating, and thinking about eating, when we travel than we do almost any other activity, and we spend a significant amount of our budget on it too (globally, around 30% of tourism expenditure goes on food). Moreover, we’re far more likely while travelling to splurge out on expensive dinners we wouldn’t enjoy at home, or try exotic new foods we may not even find at home.
Gastronomy tourism has an important potential to enhance tourist attraction and helps the marketing and the sustainability of a destination. Food connects us to a place in ways that other experiences of that culture simply cannot. Not only does it literally inhabit our bodies, but it also engages every single one of our senses along the way. Food is why the first humans roamed, and the hunt for expensive spices was a powerful motivating factor in early global exploration. Today, we roam and hunt out new cultural and culinary experiences, not only for the delight of new ingredients, recipes and flavours, but also for the opportunity sharing food and experiences gives us to interact with others and to build our knowledge of a culture. Dining while travelling is another way of proving our distance from the tired rites of home.
According to the 2020 Food Travel Monitor, a full 96% of travellers can now be considered “food travellers”, that is "travellers who had participated in a food or beverage experience other than dining out, at some time in the past 12 months.” That is a phenomenal number, but makes a little more sense when one considers the range of food experiences that have sprung over the years, from cooking classes to food tours, visits to food or drink production sites, beverage tastings, or a predetermined visit to a chocolatier, noodle bar, soup kitchen, bakery or ice cream parlour, to find out what it is that has made a particular place so famous.
Real, dedicated “foodies”, for whom food is a prime motivating factor in their travel choices, account for a smaller proportion of the overall figure though, of between 5 and 10%. They do tend to spend more money however.
The growth in this sector doesn’t just touch the food and drink outlets visited by tourists. It also concerns the hotel sector, tour and travel operators, transport, media, technology providers, farmers and farmers’ markets, and a host of service providers from laundries to printers.
Increase in this sector also leads to fundamental benefits for the host nation too, including an increase in respectful, educated visitors with an interest in sustainability, and very often a little more to spend. This leads to increased economic benefits from the number of visitors, increased media coverage including social media influencers and food and travel bloggers, increased tax revenue and an increased community awareness and pride in local culture. Culinary cultural heritage can add as much value to a destination as historical or archaeological sites. All of these elements go towards establishing a destination’s unique competitive advantage.
Leveraging that competitive advantage in a highly global field is not always easy. Even French cuisine, once the sine qua non of global cuisine, is facing a crisis as the delicious flavours of nations such as China, Peru, India, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Malaysia, Spain, Mexico, Thailand, Morocco, Singapore, Lebanon, or South Africa give people reason to check out menus before they check on flights.
Countries with the will to do it rely on a blend of innate cultural ingredients and the energy of local talents to whip up interest in the unique flavours they can offer. Even countries such as Ireland, where 800 years of enforced poverty resulted in a starved culinary culture relative to its neighbours, have created a stir thanks to the talents of its chefs and the richness of its natural ingredients.
Cambodia is impressively placed to capitalise on all of these ingredients. From a richly abundant “basket” of fruit, vegetables and leafy herbs, to a fascinating culinary culture that is not replete with a wide variety of forms and flavours but virtually a savoury history book, to the extraordinary talents and creativity of the wave of chefs that have been making their names over the last decade, and those whose names we don’t know yet.As Chef Luu Meng often says, Cambodian cuisine belongs in the list of the world’s great cuisines. It is surely only a matter of time.