More Asian travel firms are offering local food tours, hoping that what is currently a starter becomes the entree in future
While culinary tourism continues to serve up great interest across Asian countries keen to appeal to the stomachs of travellers, the reality is that only a small segment of the market is hungry for such itineraries.
Regional tourism organisations like the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), Tourism Malaysia and more recently, Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, have all come to recognise the untapped potential of travelling gourmands, rolling out an increasing number of initiatives in recent years.
Indonesia, for example, is embarking on an exercise to select iconic dishes to be highlighted in its destination marketing, in addition to developing ‘culinary centres’ across the country. Its official data shows that international tourists’ spending on food in Indonesia ranked second after transportation expenditure, while spending on food by domestic tourists ranked third after transportation and non-food purchases.
Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, Mari Elka Pangestu, said: “Local cuisine is one of the main things travellers want to try when visiting a destination.”
Singapore, armed with a host of new fine-dining establishments helmed by celebrity chefs at the Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands integrated resorts, has also set its sights firmly on the top-end of the food chain by organising a series of culinary headline acts on an annual basis.
The Singapore Food Festival is now the biggest food event on the destination’s tourism calendar, registering a record attendance of over 354,000 foodies during last year’s edition. There is also the World Gourmet Summit, which showcases upmarket restaurants around the island.
In addition, STB helped launch the inaugural Singapore International Culinary Exchange one year ago to champion local cuisine, culinary talents and food products globally. As part of this initiative, a mobile kitchen named the Singapore Takeout travelled to nine cities over a one-year span, dishing out flavours of the Lion City.
Not to be outdone, neighbouring Malaysia is also jostling for attention through the promotion of culinary events under its Fabulous Food 1Malaysia branding. Its month-long Malaysia International Gourmet Festival (MIGF) saw the introduction of Gourmet Tours Malaysia itineraries in 2010, offering four nights of accommodation, complimentary limousine transfers, a choice of four meals in MGIF-featured restaurants and a half-day city tour of Kuala Lumpur.
Reaching for a slice
Inbound operators have gotten in on the act, although they receive only a handful of groups annually.
Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Overland Services Tours & Travel (AOS) offers seven-day, six-night and three-day, two-night Malaysian Gourmet Tour itineraries, which allow travellers to dig into Indian, Malay, Chinese and Peranakan cuisine across three of Malaysia’s main food hubs: Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Langkawi. Besides visiting markets and learning how to create local dishes, guests are also taken to popular street stalls and restaurants for food sampling.
The company handled three focused gourmet travel groups last year, including a 15-pax incentive from Canada that spent two nights in Malaysia and Singapore, and a 12-pax group from Sweden.
However, AOS’ assistant director, business development, Noor M Ismail, said most of the company’s gourmet travel business was generated on an ad hoc tailormade basis. Thus, it has no plans to expand its culinary offerings. “There has not really been growth (in this segment). Gourmet travel is not for everybody. It’s a niche, special interest segment, plus Malaysian food is not really exotic,” he explained.
Kuala Lumpur-based Discovery Overland Holidays is also seeing a limited number of bookings for specialised gourmet tours, according to its manager, product development, Kingston Khoo. The company takes two to three ad hoc groups to Sabah and Penang every year, from markets such as Hong Kong and the Philippines. Each consists of four to 10 friends, combining sightseeing and food sampling elements. They stay an average of three nights.
A spokesperson from RMG Tours, which last year handled a 60-pax group from Germany for two nights in Singapore and Bali, as well as a 30-pax group that stayed three nights in Singapore and Thailand, shared the same sentiment.
“It’s not often that we get travellers coming solely for food. Most food trips are held in conjunction with meetings and incentives. We only receive one to two such groups a year, and requests are mostly from culinary magazines and associations,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, others like Bangkok-based Exotissimo Travel continue to make efforts to expand the market. It recently added a eight-day, seven-night Myanmar Culinary Delights package, which promises an in-depth introduction to Burmese cuisine, lessons on preparing local delicacies, food and beer sampling, and activities such as a teashop visit. Under its Culinary Journeys banner, there are already food-related packages to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Japan.
Demand has been trickling in. Peter McGahey, a UK-based branch representative of the International Wine & Food Society and a first-time buyer at the recent ASEAN Tourism Forum TRAVEX, cited a growing interest in Asian cuisine among his European members due to the number of Asian restaurants opening on the continent.
According to McGahey, the average budget for a five-day gourmet travel trip to Asia is between US$750-US$1,000, including accommodation at a four-star hotel and airfare. There is a separate food budget of about 100 euros (US$131) a meal, with some participants willing to spend up to 150 euros.
“It’s also fairly normal to arrive earlier or leave later,” he said, adding that dining and sightseeing itineraries are usually arranged with the help of DMCs and tourism boards, while members sometimes book hotels on their own.
Attending the mart to source for interesting gourmet travel experiences, McGahey said: “Major destinations like Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur are popular…(as they are) places that (our members) are familiar with. Singapore is especially sellable because of the variety of cuisine that you can find and because everybody there speaks English.”