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Is food the future for our tourism?

Leisure, pleasure, and the Pacific platter. Beyond the postcard perfection of lounging in paradise, there’s a rising frontier in post-pandemic travel across the region – cuisine.

“I think French Polynesia is just scratching the surface with food tourism,” shared Heimata Hall.

The owner of Tahiti Food Tours, Mr Hall operates from the island of Mo’orea, and studied under the guidance of renowned chefs at Hawaii’s Pacific Culinary Institute before returning home to French Polynesia.

The French territory, alongside Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand, is once again a finalist as Oceania Culinary Destination of the Year at the World Culinary Awards.

After a pandemic-induced lull in global travel, the recognition provides valuable citation for Pacific cuisine operators showcasing their respective and mixed palate of traditional and cosmopolitan favours.

Taco Tuesday with Tahitian style poisson cru tacos. Picture: Tahiti Food Tours.

As Mr Hall adds, the three cultures that make up French Polynesia today deliver a unique fusion of food and flavours between Tahitian, French and Chinese.

“We always sold our destination for its beautiful beaches, lagoon colors, luxurious overwater bungalows. We are realizing today that we have a rich culinary culture. Discovering culture through food, I believe food tourism is the future of the Pacific,” he said.

Traditionally, food plays an elemental role in respective Pacific cultures but also traditionally, its prominence has often been on the backburner of key traveller attractions as a conventional marketing focus on the more obvious immersions of outdoor activities and indoor luxuries.

Now as more regional destinations reopen to the world, a recent flux of culinary commendations spotlights the bigger slice that Pacific palates could claim in travel.

“It is so rich, fresh, organic, and most important seasonal. With sustainability being in the forefront of tourism campaigns, the Pacific is in a unique position to showcase what our lands, oceans and cultures have to offer with innovative cultural cuisines from young Polynesian chefs across the Pacific.”

A Tahiti market tour is part of the culinary experience. Picture: Tahiti Food Tours

On Mo’orea, culinary enthusiasts receive guided tours that include off the beaten track experiences with local vendors, stands, cafes and operators for a truly local lens.

“I am realizing the level of curiosity of tourist wanting to discover what the locals like to eat and where we like to eat. It has been very fascinating how much the tourists enjoy our everyday foods.”

As Mr Hall further shared, these foundational immersions extend to bigger development dreams for French Polynesia and the Pacific.

“I would love to see the young Polynesian talent bring a Michelin star to Tahiti and keep building from there. This would not only help put Polynesia on the map for food, but also help elevate and further develop the culinary and gastronomic potential of Polynesia. Let the world know that

Polynesia is the new frontier of food travel destination. The movement has started here, I am excited to see what the future is going to bring us in our plates.”

Cooking classes by Nanuku Fiji. Picture: Nanuku Resort Fiji

The enthusiasm is certainly shared by the Pacific Tourism Organisation, a key driver for sustainable industry practices in the region.

“Here in the Pacific, our diverse cultural mixes, the freshness of our food and the varieties contribute to who we are,” shared CEO, Christopher Cocker.

“This is what makes the Pacific unique. Culinary tourism or food tourism certainly plays a significant role, not only pleasing and entertaining our palates but also in preserving our Pacific heritage.”

“In the long term, food tourism in the Pacific not only contributes to the sustainability of local agriculture but also our food systems, communities, and culture. These experiences have a lasting and positive effect,” he added.

“Learning through the uniqueness of the Pacific region’s food culture and the destination’s biodiversity is what food travellers seek. These experiences not only intensify the connection between people and food but also generate a lasting memory for any tourist.”

Brisbane chef Louis Tikaram has partnered with Nanuku Resort Fiji. Picture: Nanuku Resort Fiji

The experience of cultured cuisine is not only available in the islands, as boutique properties like Nanuku Resort Fiji recently and deliciously demonstrated in Australia.

In partnership with Brisbane’s Stanley restaurant, Nanuku general manager Logan Miller hosted a select party of Queensland’s tourism trade to an “evening in Fiji”.

Guests feasted on cocktails and canapes including “Kokoda”, a traditional Fijian ceviche, and were co-hosted by Stanley head chef Louis Tikaram, who grew up in both Australia and Fiji.

The chef developed his culinary passion while cooking alongside his Fijian Chinese grandmother Colette, and as he relayed, a vegetarian ceviche with fresh coconut cream (a Pacific staple) was the first dish she passed onto him.

“I am thrilled to begin this new friendship with the entire Nanuku Resort team; reconnecting with my childhood home in Fiji and the very roots of my style of cuisine,” he said.

Guests enjoy “an evening in Fiji” at Brisbane’s Stanley restaurant, hosted by Nanuku Resort Fiji and restaurant head chef, Louis Tikaram. Picture: Nanuku Resort Fiji.

Mr Tikaram has lent his culinary talents to several international establishments and will offer them onsite at Nanuku Resort Fiji later this year for a special event, demonstrating the gastronomic pull of talent honed by Pacific and Western influences.

Looking ahead, the Pacific Tourism Organisation is positive about food tourism as a serious niche that could help define the future of tourism.

“It offers destinations an opportunity to showcase their unique culinary identity to travellers. More recently, this has been helped by the power of social media and Pacific themed cooking shows and cookbooks which entice travellers that are keen to pursue unique experiences off the beaten track,” Mr Cocker explained.

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As compelling tools of information go, cookbooks and special events dedicated to the nutritional value of Pacific foods are certainly in good stead alongside digital mediums.

“I’ve always had a passion for food and think that discovering new cuisines should be an integral part of the travel experience,” shared Vittoria Pasca, a Fiji-based nutritionist and author.

Fijian ceviche, known as Kokoda. Picture: Nanuku Resort Fiji

Her first publication, Pacific Vegan, Healthy and Creative Cooking with Pacific Plants, recently won Best in the World for the South Pacific category of the World Cookbook Affair at the Gourmand Awards, the world’s largest international food sector competition.

“So I’m very pleased that since I moved to Fiji in 2017 there has been a clear evolution towards more innovative menus showcasing Pacific ingredients. I really like that Fijian cuisine is multicultural, with menus including traditional dishes together with Indian and Chinese options.”

Four years ago, she co-founded VegFest Fiji and has organised close to 40 events covering fine-dining tasting dinners that showcase local fruits and vegetables, free food tastings, farm tours, movie nights, plant-based markets, and medical outreach.

With over a thousand participants, these plant-based events partner with local restaurants, cafes, and gourmet establishments, with plans to extend to resort partnerships.

In a region facing high rates of non-communicable diseases, plant-centric cuisine is still on the rise and operators and consumers certainly appreciate their value.

Kumala balls by Vittoria Pasca, a nutritionist and co-founder of VegFest Fiji. Picture: Healthy Eating Fiji

“What we found with VegFest is that people are curious about plant-based diets and that there is definitely an increasing demand for healthy, local food. Most people are not fully vegan but are still keen to try meals and events showcasing local produce prepared in innovative and creative ways.”

Ms Pasca herself was concerned about using the word “vegan” in the title of her cookbook before launching, fearful that it could discourage some, but sales have been much better than anticipated and she’s had to reprint the edition, while a second book is being released later this year.

“I think that most people really enjoyed the fact that ingredients are locally (and cheaply) available and that the recipes are creative and easy to make. So, even if few of those who bought the book are fully vegan, most people were happy to find a nutrition-focused cookbook with local ingredients.”

As she noted, vegan offerings in restaurants, supermarkets and resorts are clearly increasing, as operators also appreciate the economic value of including plant-based foods. And in a region on a global travel comeback, health and wealth can only be a good thing.

Purple gnocchi by Vittoria Pasca, a nutritionist and Pacific cookbook author. Picture: Healthy Eating Fiji

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