Food Tourism in the Caribbean – A Recipe for Economic Growth

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Since attending the Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development in St Vincent & The Grenadines last year, I can’t stop thinking about Caribbean food and how it is essential for developing sustainable tourism and could be part of the recipe for economic growth in the region. Caribbean food is not only delicious but is diverse and rich in history and culture. Yet, Caribbean food is often sidelined by many Caribbean hotels and resorts in favor of American and European cuisine. This marginalization needs to stop as by embracing Caribbean food, the hotels and resorts can help enhance the region’s tourism product. This also helps to create opportunities for all within the local food supply chain (i.e., farmers, processors, distributors, retailers, restaurants, hotels, tour operators, etc.). Finally, it will lead to increased food security in the region as well as more food tourism in the Caribbean.

UB drinking coconut from Kingstown Public Market, St Vincent. UPB drinking a fresh coconut purchased from Kingstown Public Market, St Vincent.

What is food tourism

Food tourism, often referred to as culinary tourism and gastronomy tourism is on the rise all across the globe. Food tourism is on the rise because today’s travelers who spend about a third of their budget on food are often heavily influenced by food-related social media posts from family and friends. Foodie travelers are also inspired by food programs and travel shows featuring food. For example, I have been inspired to eat local food when traveling, whether in the Caribbean or elsewhere in the world after watching Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows, including A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. More recent inspiration has been found watching Netflix food and travel shows like Street Food, Somebody Feed Phil, and Ugly Delicious.

So what exactly is food tourism? Well, the definition listed on the World Food Travel Association and attributed to the Executive Director, Erik Wolf, states that “food tourism is the act of traveling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place.” Mostly, food tourism is a mix of adventure, education, and curiosity.

  • Adventure – traveling near and far to find authentic food and beverage experiences.
  • Education – learning about local culinary cultures and customs.
  • Curiosity – discovering and opening one’s minds to new flavors, textures, cultures, and heritage.

Another definition of food tourism is offered in the 2012 World Tourism Organization Global Report On Food Tourism which references the 2003 book by Hall and Sharples titled Food Tourism Around The World:

“food tourism is an experiential trip to a gastronomic region, for recreational or entertainment purposes, which includes visits to primary and secondary producers of food, gastronomic festivals, food fairs, events, farmers’ markets, cooking shows and demonstrations, tastings of quality food products or any tourism activity related to food. In addition, this experiential journey is related to a particular lifestyle that includes experimentation, learning from different cultures, the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the qualities or attributes related to tourism products, as well as culinary specialties produced in that region through its consumption.”

Whether food is the primary or secondary motivator for visiting a destination, food tourists not only seek to experience the local food but also learn more about the origin and production of the food. Thus most food tourism experiences become cultural tourism experiences. This intertwining of food and cultural tourism presents an opportunity for most Caribbean destinations who desperately need to move beyond sun, sand, and sea, which is no longer a unique selling point. What is distinctive for each Caribbean destination is their local food, culture, history, and heritage.

Things To Do In St Lucia: Have a seafood lunch at Dasheene Restaurant at Ladera Resort. UPB having a seafood lunch at Dasheene Restaurant at Ladera Resort, Saint Lucia.

Different Types of Food Tourism

Food tourism goes beyond eating local food at hotels and resorts. That is just the beginning! Some of the more authentic food tourism experiences are out in the community interacting with locals. Food tourism is wide-ranging and can include:

  • Eating and drinking at local bars and restaurants
  • Attending a food festival, rum festival, or restaurant week
  • Attending a music festival that has a large selection of local food vendors
  • Attending a food demonstration or book signing with a celebrity chef
  • Foraging for food and bush medicine with a local guide
  • Having lunch or dinner at a local’s home
  • Taking a class focused on food and beverage pairing (i.e., chocolate and rum, etc.)
  • Taking a culinary food and beverage tour of a city or countryside area stopping at multiple bars and restaurants
  • Taking a trip that follows a crop from farm to table (i.e., coffee or chocolate, etc.)
  • Taking one or more cooking classes to learn how to make local dishes using traditional equipment and methods
  • Traveling with or learning from a celebrity chef
  • Visiting an artisan food producer (i.e., chocolate, spices, etc.)
  • Visiting local wineries, breweries or rum distilleries
  • Visiting and purchasing food products from a local market
  • Visiting local farms to learn about sustainable food production
  • Visiting food exhibitions and museums that focus on food

The list above is by no means inclusive of all the different types of food tourism experiences. However, what it demonstrates is that food tourism doesn’t just mean fine-dining or gourmet food as there are a plethora of other food experiences linked to culture. Furthermore, there are wide-ranging revenue opportunities for all within the food, beverage, hospitality, and tourism industry.

Jerk pork lunch from Moonchies seaside grill at Half Moon Resort Jamaica.
Jerk pork lunch from Moonchies seaside grill at Half Moon Resort Jamaica.

6 Examples of Food Tourism In The Caribbean

It should be noted that all of the different types of food tourism experiences are currently offered in the Caribbean and food festivals are the most established.  Below are six examples of food tourism in the Caribbean based on my recent travels.

Grenada – Savor The Spice

Location: St George’s, Grenada | Website
Savor The Spice markets themselves as the original Grenada culinary tour company, and during my last visit, I took their Savor The City Tour. With stops at seven different food establishments (a mix of markets, restaurants, and museums), it provided an excellent opportunity to learn about Grenada’s food culture and heritage. Beyond this Savor The City Tour, Savor The Spice also offers several other food tours, cook classes, and food and drinks pairing.

House of Chocolate Grenada entrance. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Entrance to House of Chocolate museum in Grenada.

Nevis – Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill

Location: Pinney’s Beach, Nevis | Website
Located on one of the best beaches in Nevis, Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill is famous for its tasty Killer Bee rum cocktail. With colorful decor and picturesque views of the Caribbean sea, its a great place to relax for drinks (after a swim), as well as authentic Caribbean food, all freshly prepared. While there, you are sure to strike up a conversion with locals and visitors from all across the globe. It is truly one of the top things to do in Nevis.

Fish lunch from Sunshine's Beach Bar & Grill. Snapper fish lunch from Sunshine’s Beach Bar & Grill.

Barbados – Oistin’s Fish Fry

Location: Oistins, Barbados | Website
One of the top things to do in Barbados is attending Oistin’s Fish Fry held every Friday and Saturday nights in the village of Oistins. Located on the south coast, Oistin’s Fish Fry attracts locals and tourists and is an opportunity to eat some of the best Bajan food, including a wide range of grilled and fried fish (tuna, swordfish, marlin, mahi-mahi, flying fish), fish cakes, sweet potato, and macaroni pie. Beyond the food, there is also music, including local dancers, singers, and drummers entertain the crowds. Note: Some of the food vendors are also open during the day time, but it lacks the festive and party atmosphere. You can though hang out at the local beach.

Fish and macaroni from Oistin's Fish Fry in Barbados. Fish and macaroni from Oistin’s Fish Fry in Barbados.

Saint Vincent – Kingstown Public Markets

Location: Kingstown, St Vincent | Website
Caribbean markets are a great place to see and purchase a wide range of fruits and vegetables that each Caribbean island has to offer. Saturday mornings are the best time to visit a Caribbean market like the Kingstown Public Markets, one of the top things to do in St Vincent, as it is usually busy. Walking through the market and seeing how the market traders and customers interact, you really get a sense of the people and local food culture. Here, I would encourage purchasing some of the fresh fruits like guineps and mangoes which are juicy and beyond delicious!

Fruits from Kingstown Public Market, St Vincent. Fruits from Kingstown Public Market, St Vincent.

Antigua Carnival – Jouvert Morning

Location: St John’s, Antigua | Website
All across the Caribbean, there are hundreds of festivals each year. The more popular are musical festivals like St Kitts Music Festival and carnivals, like Antigua Carnival. These events are a great place to soak up the culture, but also experience local food as at all events, there is a wide range of food and drinks vendors selling local drinks, fruits and cooked dishes like ducana with Johnny cakes or saltfish.

Ducana with Johnny cakes at Antigua Carnival. Ducana with Johnny cakes from a street food vendor, Antigua Carnival.

Cooking Class with Saint Lucian Chef Shorne Benjamin

Location: London, United Kingdom | Website
Hosted by the Saint Lucia Tourism Board, this was a cooking class with celebrated Saint Lucian Chef Shorne Benjamin who has appeared on TV programs like Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay. During the interactive session with Chef Shorne, it was a chance to learn more about food in Saint Lucia and partake in making the national dish consisting of green figs (bananas) and saltfish.

National dish of Saint Lucia prepared by Chef Shorne Benjamin.  The national dish of Saint Lucia prepared by Chef Shorne Benjamin.

Caribbean food experiences in major source markets like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are important as the more people that become familiar with Caribbean cuisine, the more that will be interested in traveling to the region for food tourism. Also, Caribbean chefs like Shorne Benjamin (of St Lucia) and Jason Howard (of Barbados) are not only helping to create awareness but transform the image of Caribbean food showcasing that it is not just street or takeaway ( i.e., jerk chicken with rice and peas). Caribean food is rich in history and culture and has a place within all the restaurant styles including fine dining.

UPB at Saint Lucia Tourism Authority Cooking Class in London UPB at Saint Lucia Tourism Authority Cooking Class in London.

Food tourism trends

With all food tourism experiences, the interaction with locals and the intertwining of cultural and historical insight makes for unique experiences. So what are some food tourism trends? Well, according to the 2020 Food Travel Monitor recently published by the World Food Travel Association, here are some of the latest trends in food tourism:

* 53% of leisure travelers are considered culinary travelers.
* Interest in food and drink continues to grow, with almost two-thirds of travelers saying food and beverages are more important now than five years ago.
* Food tourists engage in more activities than other kinds of travelers. This means they stay longer and spend more – on average 24% more per day than ordinary travelers.
* Food and drink, and especially food travel, are highly important to Millennial leisure travelers (born 1981-1996). Also, many within Generation Z (born 1995 – 2012) can be identified as “emerging” food travelers.
* Local and authentic food experiences are essential to attracting travelers and giving them positive experiences. Foodie tourists are interested in learning about the traditions and uniqueness to better understand a city, region, or country. This is supported by data showing that nearly 80% of travelers learn about the local food and drink when they visit a destination.

Boul Joul aka Roast Breadfruit Bowl from the Grenadine House in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines.
Boul Joul aka Roast Breadfruit Bowl from the Grenadine House in Saint Vincent & The Grenadines.

The Economic Impact of Food Tourism

The food travel trends above signal a tremendous opportunity for growth in culinary tourism in the Caribbean like elsewhere in the globe. And with additional product development and marketing to an international audience, the existing Caribbean food festivals, and other food travel experiences can go a long not only to increase stay-over tourists but also visitors spend within the wider community!  Of course, for that to happen, Caribbean governments need to get serious about agriculture and food production. As it stands, over US$5 billion of food is imported to the Caribbean region. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley has challenged the Caribbean region to cut this import bill by a quarter in the next five years. Achieving this reduction in food import would go a long way to circulating more of the money spent on food back into the local economy and increase Caribbean food security. Thus, each island needs to:

  • Develop and strengthen their national food policy
  • Educate and work with farmers to improve crop production
  • Set and reinforce standards for local foods
  • Improve food branding and packaging to meet international standards
  • Encourage partnerships between farmers, food producers, restaurants, and hotels and others in the tourism industry
  • Encourage the development of quality food tourism experiences
  • Incorporate food into all marketing campaigns

For most destinations across the globe, there are strong links between local food and tourism. And for some destinations, like Tuscany (Italy), Bordeaux (France), New Orleans (USA), Tokyo (Japan), Bangkok (Thailand), and Mendoza (Argentina), local food is one of, if not the main reason for visiting. By embracing their local cuisine and creating a variety of food tourism experiences, these destinations have built strong and unique brands in a highly competitive global tourism marketplace. Such is the importance of local food to the tourism product in the Lombardy region of Italy, they passed a law that farmhouse hotels must serve 80% local food and always local wine.

Now I’m not suggesting that Caribbean governments enact similar legislation, but policies need to be put in place to encourage more local farming and food production. Also, Caribbean hotels and resorts need to make more of an effort when it comes to educating and creating demand for Caribbean food working more closely with local farmers and food producers. The tourism boards also need to step up and create marketing campaigns that help to create awareness and demand for Caribbean food and related travel experiences.   No doubt all of this will take time and serious financial investment, but by working together the region will be in a stronger position. Sun, sand, and sea are no longer enough! Caribbean food is rich in history and culture. It needs to finally come out from the shadows helping to attract higher-spending stayover tourists and increasing economic development in the region.

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