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Follow the honey: why is our cuisine missing from our tourism story?

Sarah Meikle (with co-worker Ruby) - Visa Wellington on a Plate shows how food can drive tourist attraction

Food drives so much tourism to Europe, the USA and even Australia. So why is our food so absent in New Zealand’s tourism story? As we consider reopening to the world is it time to reconsider the role of New Zealand cuisine in the 100% Pure story? And what is New Zealand cuisine, anyway? By Ben Fahy

When the Delta variant turned up without a booking in August, Sarah Meikle, the director of Visa Wellington on a Plate (WOAP) and Food + Drink NZ, was absolutely heartbroken – not just because it affected her beloved festival, but because she knew the embattled hospitality industry was about to get another big slap in the face. 

After the announcement that the country would be going into level four lockdown at 11.59pm on August 17, about halfway through the festival’s proceedings, she decided to do her civic duty and have one last hospo hurrah. 

“I went out and had dinner and a few drinks. And it was pretty raucous,” she says; a definite apocalypse party vibe in the air. 

Like everyone else in the hospitality and events industry, she knew the Covid kybosh was a very real possibility – and she knew that shutting things down was necessary. But it was particularly hard to take this year because it was set to be the best festival yet, with a huge number of events planned, “the biggest Burger season ever”, and around 300,000 people expected to attend. 

Some events obviously had to be canceled, but many of them found new dates or were extended. But the issue was that the momentum had been lost. And, in the end, she says when things kicked back off again it became more of a recovery programme for an industry hampered by limitations than a full-blown celebration. 

Despite the challenges of 2021 – “It was a blip, but what a blip! It’s more like a permanent stain” – the long-term trend around the festival’s popularity and public participation is clear and Meikle can’t quite believe how much it’s grown since it was launched in 2009. 

“It was a right time, right place, right situation kind of scenario,” she says. 

“It was pretty dire at the time. We were coming out of the recession and there was some accommodation and hospitality that was closing on the weekends because it was a business town, not a tourist town. We wanted to create something that created love of Wellington among Wellingtonians. We wanted them to be proud of what we had and to do that we needed to educate them about what was on offer. A festival was a great way to do that, because Wellingtonians are great at attending things. We’re an events city.” 

 

Since then, that love has flowed outwards and WOAP has become a major domestic travel event and a highlight of the national food calendar. 

While New Zealand’s insular Covid economy has proven surprisingly robust, the international tourists will eventually return. The break has given everyone a chance to think about how we might do things better and the government has indicated the focus will shift towards attracting higher value tourists in an effort to grow the tourism sector while reducing the burden on our infrastructure and environment. 

Some see that as elitist, while others see it as a necessary step. But it’s clearly where things are heading and, according to a 2018 report from ANZ and MPI on the potential of food and agri tourism and its link to increased trade, food tourists should be a primary target. 

Research at the time suggested those who travel primarily for food and beverage experiences (Meikle puts herself squarely in this category) spend 50% more on food and beverage per day when travelling compared with other leisure tourists. Visitors to New Zealand who visited a vineyard or attended a wine event spent over 25% more on their trip than the average spend. 

Not only that, the lasting benefit of food tourism is that when visitors return to their home countries, “over 60% of travellers purchase food and drinks that they first encountered on a trip”. 

At present, Meikle says there is an understandable focus on big systemic issues like food security, sustainability and adequate access to affordable food. There are 31 primary agencies in government with a role in the food system, KPMG’s head of agribusiness Ian Proudfoot told RNZ, so it’s a very complex issue with a long chain of interests. Meikle says there is no national food tourism strategy to attract high-value food tourists, just a patchwork of regional approaches, as well as NZTE working hard to tell stories about New Zealand food and beverage producers and individual businesses doing their own thing. 

There’s one graph from the ANZ report that paints a clear picture of the challenge ahead if we want to attract high-value food tourists: New Zealand is near the bottom of the list of countries surveyed when people were asked to rank their perceptions of food and beverage destinations. Of the countries included, we’re ahead of only Scandinavia and well behind renowned food havens Italy, France and Spain. 

The perception is neutral, rather than negative, and the rankings improve when visitors from our top tourist destinations Australia, China and the US are asked, but why so meh? In those top countries, Meikle says there’s a clear expectation of the type of food you’ll get and a very strong cultural link to food that has been created over many centuries. In some cases, that has also led to protected status for products that can only be made in specific areas and end up attracting a premium. Conversely, New Zealand is a young country that is renowned for producing quality ingredients, and there is often no preconceived notion of New Zealand food before visitors get here. 

“They might know about sauv blanc, meat, mussels, dairy and kiwifruit. But that is not a food style. That is a list of ingredients … We produce enough food for 40 million people so the mentality is we are a farming nation and we export these simple things and there is no true culinary culture.” 

Meikle isn’t surprised with that ranking, because when she asks New Zealanders at conferences to tell her what New Zealand food is, they also struggle to define it. 

“I will get 50 different answers,” she says. 

So what should it be? “It’s not for me to decide. I don’t think we need to have a national dish. But I do think we need to start talking about food like an attraction, not an amenity like a bed or a rental car … I hate using the word renaissance, but it feels we’re in a very exciting place in terms of understanding indigenous ingredients and appreciating Māori cuisine as uniquely New Zealand. We need to let that develop and it could be a much more important part of our food offering. It’s one thing telling visitors, but we need to educate ourselves first because most people know nothing about it.” 

We have boxes of cumin and coriander in the supermarket, she says, but there are no boxes of pikopiko, horopito and kawakawa. 

“Right now you cannot access those ingredients easily. They need to be accessible. They need to be in magazines and recipes. We’ll reach for the lemongrass before we reach for a product that is from New Zealand.”

That’s a lifetime goal, she says. But the rising interest in Te Reo Māori and the speed with which other ethnic foods can quickly be seen as normal (“it wasn’t that long ago I tried sushi for the first time”) offers hope.

“When I’m 80, wouldn’t it be cool to think that our grandchildren are as confident in using native ingredients as they are with everything we import.”

The food community is bigger than it’s ever been, Meikle says. And it is certainly not just restaurants. It’s producers, suppliers, retailers and event organisers. Among consumers, there’s so much more interest in understanding the story behind different foods, products, dishes and regions and more demand for safe, sustainably produced food, which works in New Zealand’s favour.  

“New Zealand is seen as being a natural destination and that is very much the story of food. It’s not a long bridge to cross to get from the environment and the landscapes to food.”

At the regional level, Meikle and her team have worked with Northland, Waikato, Queenstown and others to help develop their narrative around food and beverage. 

“There’s no point saying come to Queenstown and have some walnuts. We need to link it into their bigger landscape and scenery story.”

Every region tends to say ‘we’ve got lots of food and beverage. We’ve got craft beer’. And she responds ‘yep, anything else?’ 

“Craft beer might be a key building block for food and beverage, but it can’t be the only thing. So what’s your defining feature? It’s hard to see that when you’re in it, so we go in as a visitor and say ‘these are the things that excite people, these are the product gaps and here are the opportunities for development and partnerships.’” 

Innovative agri-tourism experiences are also happening all over New Zealand and are aimed at a range of different demographics – from a high-end degustation meal made with ingredients sourced from Blue Duck Station and eaten on top of a mountain, to hands-on experiences with animals, product tastings, berry picking, or on-farm accommodation. 

Obviously not all farmers want to get into tourism or hospitality, but diversifying revenue streams, moving away from complete reliance on often fickle commodity markets and finding ways to add value to primary produce is increasingly common. The businesses profiled on Country Calendar certainly attest to that. 

At the product level, New Zealand’s wine industry is an obvious example of what can happen when an industry harnesses the positive attributes of the country to attract a premium. Many wine regions and individual wineries try to bring that to life at the source, knowing that good products, good holiday moods and good locations make for great memories – and ideally great sales at the winery. 

At the other end of the food spectrum, Pic’s Peanut Butter adopted a similar strategy when it opened an architecturally designed factory/tourist attraction called Peanut Butter World in 2019 in Nelson. 

“I think back on opening this place andwhat a risk it was. When it was about to open I thought ‘God, we’re really putting ourselves out there’,” says founder Pic Picot. “… But it has worked. It is doing what it was meant to do and engaging people with what we do.”

Picot’s goal has always been to “make it real and not boring and the key to being boring is to do what everyone else does”. 

“I’ve been obsessed with getting one person at a time really enthusiastic about us  … People come in and do this tour for free and see how it’s all done and they say ‘that’s pretty cool, I like these guys, I want to give them my money, even though it costs a bit more.’” 

And just as WOAP gave Wellington locals something to be proud of, he believes support for Pics in the Nelson Tasman region has played a major role in its success. 

Ambassadorship is key to growing popularity, Meikle says, and WOAP has “started a lot of conversations that we previously didn’t have. I do have examples of post-festival activity where chefs come in, do a collab and then say ‘we want X,Y and Z on our menu’. We’ve had that happen a number of times.” 

Trickle-down economics might have failed, but trickle-down food trends have been more successful, which is why so many marketing strategies for premium food products involve targeting high-end restaurants. She says introducing high-profile chefs to our salmon farms, mussel farms, oyster beds, and wineries to create that link to provenance is how they “become fans for life”.

Big events are also a great way to get the increasingly diverse food sector to come together and increase international credibility. WOAP has become a high-point for New Zealand’s food scene, the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival has become one of the world’s biggest and she sees room in New Zealand for an event like the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, which runs for three days every year, is limited to 5000 attendees, costs $2,500 per person and has been successful in its intended purpose of attracting big spenders to Aspen in the summer. 

She says the possibility of creating New Zealand on a Plate has been discussed numerous times, but the mechanics of the event would have to change significantly. In saying that, if someone is willing to put their hand up and fund it, she’s keen to get onboard and make it happen. 

While we don’t have Michelin-starred restaurants for visitors to check off their bucket list (Michelin doesn’t judge in New Zealand or Australia), she has been working hard to get New Zealand restaurants on the World’s 50 Best list. 

“Judging is not for every restaurant, but it does help your reputation and credibility around food. It’s another tick in the box.” 

It’s not just one thing that improves perceptions, however. She points to Canada (and specifically British Columbia and Ontario) as a good example of a country that has created a groundswell of support for its food sector by setting up festivals, championing producers and suppliers, hosting food journalists, getting on best-of lists and working with the UN’s Gastronomy Tourism department

High-end experiences tend to be the defining experiences, Meikle says, and restaurants like Hiakai in Wellington, Ahi in Auckland or Amisfield in Arrowtown cost a lot of money for a reason. 

“We do want high-value visitors. We want them to leave a light footprint, invest in the regions, travel widely and go home and talk about us. There’s long-term value in that relationship.”

But she is at pains to point out that everybody is a food tourist. It doesn’t matter if you’re eating a pie in Maketu or fish ‘n chips on the beach in Kaikōura, those experiences can often be some of the most memorable and they’re all part of our food story. 

Not everyone goes on a jet boat, but everybody has to eat. Generally, visitors have positive experiences with New Zealand food when they get here, but according to the ANZ report, “32% of surveyed visitors to New Zealand scored food and beverage experiences below 8/10 for satisfaction” and many felt it was over-priced. 

A brand is what others perceive you as, not how you perceive yourself. At the moment, New Zealand is perceived as beautiful, natural and, due to our successful Covid response and celebrity prime minister, capable and kind. But we’re not seen as a food destination.

She believes that could completely change in as little as five years if we focus our attention on it, continue to build pride in our food sector and dedicate some of our promotional activity to targeting people who travel primarily for food experiences. 

“Look how quickly we became a land of Hobbits.” 

And to do it, she believes it’s actually pretty obvious what we’d say.  

“New Zealand tastes better at the source. Everything tastes better at the source. Imagine eating food at the place where the best comes from. We need our food storytelling to link back to the reasons people want to come here in the first place.”

Ben Fahy is a freelance journalist

Read more about Meikle’s plan here: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JTF-02-2021-0056/full/html

 

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