With facts and figures to back them up, Nepal’s travel and tourism industry believes that food is the way to a tourist’s heart.
--BY ASHIM NEUPANE
Good food in today’s world is not just considered as a palate pleaser. Pleasing the taste buds has also become one important way of attracting tourists. Various international surveys and research have shown the importance of food in tourism. A 2016 report published in the Food Travel Monitor, a publication of the World Food Tourism Association, finds food and drinks as a motivating factor for 75 percent of leisure travellers to visit a particular destination across the world. Similarly, a pan-European survey carried out a few years ago revealed that about half of the European tourists like to travel and wander around for culinary experiences. Earlier in 2012, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in its Global Report on Food Tourism highlighted the importance of food tourism stating that, “food tourism has become one of the most dynamic and creative segments of tourism the world over.” According to UNWTO, over a third of global tourist spending goes to food.
Also known as gastronomic tourism, food tourism can be defined as any tourism activity that gives tourists unique and memorable experiences in eating and drinking reflecting the heritage, culture and tradition in culinary techniques of the host countries. Countries including France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Portugal, United States, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile, South Africa, China, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, Morocco, Israel, Australia and New Zealand are considered as the major gastronomic tourism destinations of the world.
Food Tourism in Nepal
Despite having an extensive food and drink culture, Nepal has not been able to tap the immense potential in gastronomic tourism. Nepal is home to a large number of ethnic groups who have their own rich tradition of delicious cuisines that have been developed over centuries of practice. Leaving aside Thakali and some Newari delicacies, it’s very hard to find traditional food varieties in even areas with high tourist inflow across the country. At present, the menus of hotels and restaurants are mostly dominated by international dishes, and it seems that this hasn’t concerned Nepali hospitality entrepreneurs in terms of providing a unique experience to foreign visitors. According to the veteran hotelier and conservationist Karna Sakya, Indian cuisine is served here as Nepali food. “It is the food that shows our lifestyle, culture and history. We have a large variety of delicious dishes in our country. But we have lagged behind in this area of tourism business because of the relatively low-level of branding and promotion,” he says.
Currently, only a very few eateries in the capital valley and elsewhere in the county have been promoting local dishes. Restaurants like Newa Lahana in Kirtipur, for example, have been serving only ethnic Newari delicacies. Salt and spices are the only ingredients it buys from the market while other essentials are prepared in-house, according to the owner of the restaurant. Similarly, some Thakali restaurants also have been offering typical Thakali menus. However, services of such restaurants are largely limited to the Nepalis guests.
National Initiative for Globalization of Nepali Cuisines
Despite the growth of the tourism business in Nepal, the country’s hospitality sector hasn’t been able to play a crucial role in taking traditional Nepali cuisines to the world. “People only think about the scenic beauty when it comes to promoting Nepal in the global arena. Besides the mountains and the lavish landscapes, we also need to be able to offer foreigners the amazing tasty food so as to make them visit Nepal more often,” thinks Binayak Shah, general secretary of Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN).
The umbrella organisation of Nepali hoteliers has taken a promising step in promoting typical Nepali foods. In a joint initiation called the “National Initiative for Globalization of Nepali Cuisines”, HAN and Chefs Association of Nepal have collaborated with the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), UNESCO, and other stakeholders to promote tradition Nepali dishes internationally. The aim of the initiative is to give foreigners a taste of local Nepali flavor so as to bring them back to Nepal as food tourists. The campaign which is being led by Karna Sakya plans to organise a number of food fests in different countries to establish Nepal as a food destination. The campaign will start in the next three months and will run for a year.
“We will take this campaign all over the world,” informs Shah who is also the Managing Director of the Airport Hotel. According to him, the campaign will focus on presenting Nepali indigenous cuisines in more artistic ways to garner the attention of foreign food lovers. The ingredients of the dishes will also be revised and food items will be customised according to the taste and climate of the local areas where the events of campaign will be held. “The proteins and calories in the cuisines will be maintained as per the need,” mentions Shah.
According to Sakya, a total of 20 dishes from all over the country will be selected in the first phase by a team of culinary experts before heading to the international stage. “Currently, we are preparing a detailed record of authentic dishes of the mountainous, hilly, capital valley and Terai regions of Nepal,” he informs, adding, “The food items (including the preparation details) will be extensively promoted by publishing books, displayed on different travel websites, apps and social media.” Sakya says that at least 30 different types of typical Nepali dishes will be selected for the purpose. “We need to have at least 30 varieties in the menu that can represent a large number of Nepali cuisines,” he stresses.
“Globalising the rich food culture can be elemental in developing a strong foundation for Nepali tourism which will strengthen the identity and dignity of the country also showcasing our history and civilization,” he expresses. Sakya also asks for the support of Nepali tourism entrepreneurs and restaurateurs for promoting the traditional delicacies. “There are many high-end restaurants in the country that have been welcoming tourists in significant numbers. It will be helpful if they include some authentic Nepali dishes in their menus,” he says.
Shah agrees with Sakya. “It won’t be logical to promote our cuisine internationally if we don’t show concerns to include them on the menus of local restaurants,” he mentions. According to him, HAN has asked the government to formulate a policy with mandatory provision for new restaurants to have a certain number of local dishes on their menus.
Importance of Food Festivals
The world over, food festivals and carnivals are among the key elements for promoting gastronomic tourism. Food fairs alongside cuisine related workshops and cooking classes have become important tourism products, according to UNWTO. The world tourism body has found that food events account for a whopping 79 percent of the most demanded and common gastronomic tourism activities organised across the globe. Likewise, a 2013 report published by the University of Queensland, Australia has highlighted food events as elemental for garnering the attraction of food tourists. The study has also found affordability of local cuisines and hands-on experiences of food lovers as other important factors in this regard.
At present, Nepalis have been organising a few food festivals in the country where a few traditional dishes are available. Shah suggests the government should encourage the private sector to organise such fests and at the same time it should also work to bring tourists to the events.
Making it to the UNESCO list
Local cuisines of some countries even have been listed as important heritages of the world. Mediterranean cuisines of Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Cyprus, Croatia and Portugal, traditional Mexican diet, Japanese and French meals, Turkish coffee and Arabic coffee have made it onto UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in the years following 2010. Similarly, food and drinks making techniques such as the Croatian Gingerbread craft and Flatbread making and sharing culture in Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey along with the ancient Georgian traditional Qvevri wine-making method have also been included in the UNESCO list. This has provided the countries with an excellent opportunity in terms of branding and promotion of their food tourism.
Other Things to be Done
There is also a need for conducting in-depth research and studies on authentic cuisines available in the country which will be helpful in terms of marketing and promotion globally. “Eastern Nepal is home to more than 300 local dishes. No study or research has taken place about the cuisines,” says Shakya. He emphasises on the importance of such studies to identify and promote the dishes nationally and internationally. “The private sector can’t do everything on its own. The government needs to come forward in this respect,” he suggests.
Shakya is also of the view that Nepali embassies in other countries can play an important role in promoting Nepali food tourism. “When Nepali embassies organise programmes, they should serve the guests with traditional Nepali dishes. This will help grab the attention of foreigners when it comes to Nepali traditional food,” he says.