Asia: The New Frontier for Culinary Travel

by Judy Jacobs

Asia may just be the new frontier for the growing experiential travel trend of culinary travel.

Part of the reason it’s gaining strength as a culinary destination is the unique and diverse experiences it can offer whether it’s lunch in a Vietnam farmhouse or trying sushi made from fish fresh out of the sea in Japan, according to tour operators and travel agents specializing in this niche.

While there are a growing number of culinary tours, most of them are geared to small groups or private FIT tours, according to tour operators.

For FITs, itineraries may be customized according to clients’ culinary interests and experience and can be a combination of market tours, cooking classes, tasting tours, and authentic dining experiences.

Target clients
Clients tend to be affluent and well-traveled and range in age from 30s to 70s, according to tour operators.

“They are everything from honeymooners on up to retirees. That’s the thing about culinary trips; everybody eats,” said Catherine Held, co-founder and CEO of New York City-based Remote Lands.

Asian culinary trips might be for “clients who have done the more typical European trips and might be open to something that’s a little out of their comfort,” said Karen Herbst, founder and president of The International Kitchen in Chicago.

“They’re a great value. You get a lot for your money,” she added.

Qualifying clients
It’s important to get a sense of what kind of food experiences clients enjoy the most.

“For some people culinary tour means going to every Michelin restaurant in a region. Others want very casual and non-restaurant dining experiences.” said Ashley Issac Ganz, founder of New York City-based Artisans of Leisure.

Upscale dining may be favored by some, but according to Heald, “The ideal culinary trip includes both ends of the spectrum, from the very high end to street food and everything in between.”

“This includes going to the markets and visiting people’s homes for a lunch or dinner with home cooked food,” she said.

Asia destinations
The fact that Americans eat a lot of Thai food is one of the reasons they want to go to Southeast Asia, according to Herbst.

Vietnam is another country in the region that’s gaining a lot of attention among culinary travelers, she added.

Heald calls Japan, “the biggest culinary destination.”

“People go to Japan just to eat,” she said. “You do everything from the outdoor markets and street food to the absolute top end kaiseki dinners.

“Japanese food is so exquisite and so varied and so different. Food is art in Japan.”

Agents’ perspective
Andres Zuleta, an agent and founder and president of San Diego-based Boutique Japan, called culinary travel, “the entrance for a lot of our clients; it helps us stand out.”

“A lot of people are attracted to Japan for the sushi and ramen and all that,” he said. “We saw a huge increase in ‘conversions’ after adding the food page to our website and that continues to be something that new clients mention when they reach out to us.”

“The key words we see when people send us inquiries are food and culinary travel,” Zuleta said. “Some people want really luxurious food tours, some people want to go on a cooking tour, but everyone who really wants to experience Japanese culture, wants to experience it through food.”

According to Chris Grabar, owner and president of CG Concierge Travel, “there is a huge culinary push for India. People want to experience different cultures and they want to know what it’s like to live there [in that country] and that includes food.”

Willowbrook, Ill.-based CG Concierge Travel, specializes in travel to Asia and India.

“India to me is one of those countries that I’m looking at much more because there’s a lot of international gateways,” said Grabar.

“Not only the major cities like Dehli and Mumbai but the Himalayas and off-the-beaten-path. Food is everywhere in these countries.”

Sales advice
Zuleta advised agents interesting in breaking into culinary travel to start with one or two destinations and see if there’s any interest from clients.

Eating, going to markets or cooking are the three main types of culinary travel experiences, he said.

“If you’re starting out you might want to decide which one you want to sell—one or all three,” he added. “Most people are really interested in food. I think one of these three will usually capture peoples’ attention.”

Grabar said she always talks to client about food “because I think that’s a huge thing to do to experience the culture.”

“For agents who are just starting to sell this [culinary travel], the first thing they want to do is identify within themselves what kind of cuisine they like and what they like to eat when they travel, then it’s easier to explain that to a client,” she said.

“You’ve got to have a great operator and network in the country,” she added. “And talk to other agents who specialize in it.”

International Kitchens’ Herbst said agents need to be proactive.

“They can’t wait for clients to ask them about these things,” she said. “They have to suggest them.”

It’s also key to determine how adventurous clients are, according to Heald of Remote landes.

“We’ve had some people who went on super adventurous trips where they ate scorpions, deep fried grasshoppers and fried mice in Vietnam,” she said. “The more you know about your client and their interests and how adventurous they are, the better.”

Daniel McCarthy contributed to this story

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