Though it seems there’s a festival for every kind of food these days, there is good reason for that: festivals allow tourists and locals alike to experience many themed activities or types of food in a concentrated environment. Festivals can serve as a useful focal point for an industry or town looking to promote itself, and give tourists a reason to visit a particular area or site. Besides their obvious economic benefits, festivals can help build a “brand” of an area, foster community pride, and help develop relationships between individuals working in similar industries. Festivals also encourage localities to think about how they will present themselves and what is special and unique about them – in other words, their “heritage” – in a clear and concise manner. Perhaps one reason festivals are on the rise is that younger people, who make up a large percentage of food-driven tourists, consistently spend their money on unique experiences rather than “things.”
A discussion of festivals is a prime opportunity to talk about some of the theory around what role food plays in a tourism economy. Major tourist attractions are referred to as “peak experiences”: those that are the primary reasons for a tourist’s visit. Things like the natural wonders, theme parks, or museums usually fall under this category. For a long time, food was referred to by tourism experts as a “secondary experience” – something that supported, but was not a primary driver of, the tourist experience, in the same category as transportation or a hotel: something that you do because you have to in order to access your primary “peak experience” target.
Not so anymore: as Shuai Quan and Ning Wang point out in their research on food experiences in tourism, “food has proven to be an important means of selling the identity and culture of a destination…[and] is regarded as one of the important factors in the destination marketing development.” In layman’s terms, this means something that many readers probably already know: people today are willing to travel largely, if not solely, based on their desire for a unique and exciting culinary experience. Local food traditions can be one of the major factors helping an area differentiate itself as a destination, and consuming those foods becomes the main vehicle for the “tourist experience.” The authors note that food “enables local food producers to add value to their products by creating a tourist experience around the raw materials.”
Festivals take this idea to its natural conclusion, making food the peak experience and allowing the local heritage component to become a uniting theme for a few hours or a few days. As defined by Kim, Suh, and Eves, festivals bring producers and consumers together in “a multi-stimuli environment by providing samples, insights into methods of production and reassurance of authenticity amidst a general atmosphere of curiosity, exploration, and entertainment.”
Some of the more successful food festivals tied to an area’s heritage include the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, which draws over 100,000 people, and the Hatch Valley Chile Festival in New Mexico. Though they’re not as big, quirkier celebrations like the Alabama Butterbean Festival and the North Carolina Pickle Festival – Tour de Pickle bicycle ride, anyone? – have also carved out niches. What each of these festivals have in common is that they allow visitors to experience a unique, local phenomenon that connects a practical need (eating) with their recreational need (seeing and doing something new and different).
In their book “Food Tourism: A Practical Guide,” John and Linda Stanley note that “festivals that do not take the opportunity to make the ‘product’ the hero will be short-lived festivals…food tourism is about enriching the consumer experience, not selling boxes of produce.” In a way, this is the main argument for food heritage as an economic development tool: while the draw for many tourists will be the food itself, the supporting experiences that make it truly a unique experience are what will build the “destination” and keep people coming back. While the foods themselves are certainly important, it is the sense of place, community, and history that separates food heritage experiences from other tourist activities. Planning a festival encourages this type of broad thinking about a community’s assets and culture, and can assist in developing a more comprehensive and long-term approach to celebrating food heritage.
Of course, festivals do not run themselves, and a significant amount of fundraising, outreach, and logistical planning is necessary for a successful event – not to mention the decision of what food or foods the festival will promote. Of utmost importance is ensuring that as many vendors and presenters at the festival are locally or regionally based. This may prove challenging in regions that have less tourist infrastructure and fewer well-developed businesses, but one goal of the planning process is to take note of the assets and identify those aspects of the food and tourist ecosystem that can use a boost.
What is clear is that food festivals – especially those with a heritage component – can also have an affect on the future food decisions of attendees. A recent study in the journal Tourism Management found that people who had a positive experience at a local food festival are highly likely to change their food purchasing behavior by seeking out and actually buying more locally produced foods. The same likely goes for visitation: a festival can expose an individual to a “sample size” of a large number of activities that they might not otherwise experience, exposing them to new potential destinations. That, along with the potential economic windfall, make festivals an excellent option for regions looking to share their food heritage with a wider audience.