Why fresh produce should hit the tourist trail

Food Tourism - crowds at the Ludlow food festival

Crowds flock to the Ludlow Food Festival, one of the first in the UK, founded in 1995

As the summer comes to its close, tourism also comes to an end for the year – or does it? Tourism has become a year- round activity and is no longer just a summer-holiday occurrence. Food has got in on the act and food tourism is among the most buoyant sectors by far, attracting thousands of visitors every week to farms and vineyards as well as food fairs, festivals and trails

Season extension

According to Visit Britain, food is a major factor in deciding which locations to visit for over a third of visitors. A survey Rural Tourism and local Food and Drink published by DEFRA in February shows how the food and drink offer can extend the tourist season, boosting local communities and putting itself at heart of the British tourism experience.

The report highlights numerous ways in which local communities are developing significant income from food tourism. There are examples such as Tebay and Gloucester motorway service stations that include farm shops selling local produce reflecting the strong local producer networks in those areas.

Then there’s the Cornish village of Padstow, which has developed a strong reputation as a local food destination enhanced by celebrity chefs, and Amble in Northumberland, which has a growing food and drink offer that is fully integrated into local economic development plans.

The research also highlights areas where there is already clear potential for greater development of food tourism such as Exmoor National Park where local food and drink are becoming an important element in the tourism offer, but is not yet considered a significant driver of tourism.

And other examples are Dersingham and Hunstanton in West Norfolk, both of which are close to the royal country retreat at Sandringham – a destination that attracts thousands of visitors every month. The report points out that it shows potential to develop a local food and drink offer that could contribute to tourism.

Profit stream

Food tourism can be extremely profitable. The DEFRA report estimates that sales for local food and drink totalled almost £10 billion across England in 2013, of which almost £3bn was sold in rural areas. Of that sum, tourism expenditure on food and drink accounted for £2.6bn across England of which £1.4bn was spent in rural areas. Tourists account for 50% of local food and drink sales in those areas.

The experience of Visit Scotland bears out these findings. In 2015, it looked at the food and drink visitor experience in Scotland and found that 47% of tourists tried local drinks, while 46% tried local food. Continental visitors were particularly keen with 73% trying local food. Earlier this year, travel company Expedia carried out a survey of 14,000 people cross Europe to find that one in 10 British tourists were planning to go on a foodie holiday, where the local cuisine was a deciding factor in choice of destination.

While Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of the Protected Food Name Association says: “Melton Mowbray is the smallest borough in England but it attracts about 50,000 visitors and has gained about £70million as a result of food tourism. We can have 12 coaches arrive in Melton Mowbray on a market day because we have protected status for our pork pies.”

Maximising success

According to the DEFRA Rural Tourism report, the key success factors for maximizing food tourism opportunities include:

* Developing food and drink activities as visitor attractions in their own right to  meet demand from tourists

* Ensuring the integrity and authenticity of local food and drink produce

* Strong marketing activities to raise awareness among tourists

* Raising the quality of the tourism offer to attract higher value tourists.

DEFRA funding

To help communities profit from food tourism, DEFRA’s Great British Food Unit has set up a dedicated £150,000 fund to develop a network of food tourism trails. Local partnerships such as community groups, trade organisations and National Parks, are being encouraged to group together and bid for up to £25,000 each to champion regional food and drink. This fund is part of the wider Great British Food Campaign launched by the then environment secretary Liz Truss at the beginning of the year to establish Britain’s reputation as a great food nation.

Yorkshire is one of the UK’s top tourist destinations, possessing a strong food tourism identity upon which it is steadily building. A typical recent project was the Tour de Yorkshire Cuisine – a map of the top food hotspots along the Tour de Yorkshire, cycle route, thus highlighting the benefits of partnership working and food innovation.

Other areas are equally active for example the East of England, which regularly hosts numerous food fairs and food festivals. A spokesman for Tastes of Anglia says: “Food tourism in the East of England is something that Tastes of Anglia started promoting with an on-line initiative, supported by social media activity to drive traffic, more than a year ago. We have attracted considerable interest both nationally and internationally.

“Food tourism in the UK is not as easily defined as in some countries in continental Europe, where regions are famous for their local produce and styles of cuisine. This has not stopped Wales and Scotland clearly defining their food offering as a reason to visit. Counties such as Cumbria and Yorkshire have also achieved some success, as has our fellow food group Taste of the West in south-west England.

“We are already working with the tourism organisations of our region to raise the profile of our food offering in the promotion of tourism in East Anglia.”

Making a festival of it

Food Festivals are one of the most prominent ways of attracting food tourists to an area. The top festivals in 2016 were the Ludlow Food Festival, Nantwich Food & Drink Festival, Great British Food Festival, Wimbledon Park Food Festival, and Banbury Food Fair.

Ludlow Food Festival started back in 1995 and has grown considerably, attracting visitors from throughout the UK as well as overseas. It was set up to boost the image of the area by creating an event that would promote its food and drink producers, and incorporate trails to encourage visitors to explore Ludlow’s shops, restaurants and pubs. Visitor numbers have grown rapidly for this annual event and it now attracts up to 20,000 paying customers each year. Participants include companies such as A Little Bit Food Co producing dressings and sauces made from fresh herbs, and Teme Valley Fruit.

Food Tourism - Ludlow Castle Inner Bailey with food festival underway
Ludlow's popularity gets stronger year on year

Even in cities food tourism has become big business. Liverpool was once best known for its football and music scene, but food and drink have now joined this profile. Ian Richards from the Liverpool Food and Drink Festival says: “As Liverpool’s dining scene began to emerge over 10 years ago, it was identified that a food festival would be the perfect vehicle to spread the word about the quality of the city’s food offer. Next year marks the festival’s tenth anniversary and we’re looking at holding a number of city-wide initiatives that will have a national focus and attention. Liverpool’s food and drink offer has exploded over the last few years and is now second to none. The festival has certainly helped raise its profile.

“In 2015 we saw over 45,000 food lovers attend during the festival weekend – we anticipate that this number will be higher this year and the festival even busier. The festival catchment area is within an approximate drive time of 1.5 hours of Liverpool, though we often get visitors who come from much further afield, largely because of the event’s reputation as one of the top food events in the UK. We attract a wide demographic, from young people to families – it’s a very democratic event – it unites everyone that has a love of [good] quality food and drink.”

Fresh produce is regarded as an integral part of the event. “The festival’s Producer’s Market is a long-standing event staple and we bring together both local and regional producers, with produce including fresh fruit, vegetables and a wide variety of other foodstuffs,” says Richards. “The Producer’s Market is always a bustling and a popular area of the festival. Visitors also use it for provisions – so will buy fresh breads, cheeses and fruit and have an impromptu picnic on the festival site. This year’s event also has a big focus on clean eating, and there’s a dedicated zone – The Good Life Area – that also includes companies that specialise in fresh produce, as well as veg-box companies. We’d certainly like to build on the Good Life aspect and expect that this will develop and grow in size over the coming years as the public’s interest grows…. We are always on the look out for emerging trends.”

Food Tourism - demonstration by chefs during festival
Chef demonstrations are a popular part of food festivals

Speciality lines

A slightly different approach was taken by County Armagh, which is traditionally known as the Orchard of Ireland due to the number of apple orchards in the area. The Apple Blossom Fair offers visitors the opportunity to sample apples and apple produce set against the backdrop of thousands of blossoming apple trees. There are a wide range of events held during this fair. For example Morgan’s Apple Farm Orchard Tours charges people to go on a tour of the apple orchards, and concludes with apple juice and cider tasting; while a local bakery shows how the apples move from the farm to be made into apple tarts.

A similar event is held at Southwell in Nottinghamshire each autumn focusing on Bramley apples – as this is where the renowned apple originates from. Thousands of people come to enjoy the festivities, sample the apples, follow the trails and buy produce on sale at the Bramley Festival held within Southwell Minster. It even welcomes tourists from as far afield as Japan, where the apples are revered. “We get over 3,000 visitors to the minster food and drink festival alone,” says the minster’s Kathryn Anderson. “It is a wonderful thing. Food and drink businesses focus on apples and apple products and we get a lot of local producers, farm shops as well as companies such as Welbeck Abbey Brewery taking part. Outside the minster there are numerous events throughout Southwell and even the racecourse holds a Bramley Apple Race. This is one of the biggest events in Southwell, it certainly puts the place on the map.”

The Wakefield Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb is another very successful example of food tourism involving fresh produce. It celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2016. The festival began as a rhubarb festival, promoted by producer E Oldroyd & Sons and has since developed into a much wider concept. It includes local and regional chefs creating dishes within a demonstration marquee, a food market, street food, street entertainers and rhubarb themed family workshops, as well as opportunities to tour rhubarb sheds.

Alice Mannion, visitor services co-ordinator in Wakefield says: “The unique celebration of rhubarb has proved popular and attracts visitors from not only across the UK but from around the world as well. Coaches bring in food lovers from across the country to sample the local delights, many companies also take visitors to a tour around the rhubarb forcing sheds 15 minutes down the road at the Yorkshire Rhubarb Sheds.

“The festival has had a positive impact on the area, bringing in new visitors and enticing returning visitors every year. The local community gets involved too, many restaurants and cafes join in and create specialist menus including our famous rhubarb especially for the festival. Local attractions also play a part by hosting fringe events across the whole festival weekend.”

Food Tourism - wakefield during the festival
Wakefield is buzzing during the town's food, drink and rhubarb event

Even hotels have taken advantage of the food tourist concept. Wedgwood the Restaurant has launched a Wild Foraging Experience for tour groups around Edinburgh led by one of Scotland’s leading chefs, Paul Wedgwood. Following their search for wild produce around Midlothian, they then prepare lunch at the hotel.

Evidence as to just how popular food tourism can be is reflected by the success of the Great British Asparagus Feast was held in Bristol earlier this year at the height of the season thanks to a crowdfunding campaign which was extremely popular and helped raise awareness of the vegetable. Polly Akielan a consultant at Pam Lloyd PR who was part of the organisation of the Great Asparagus Feast says:  “At one point #Asparafeast was trending on Twitter.”

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