Calgary Food Tours mentioned in Alberta Venture magazine – September, 2014
Sep 16, 2014
by Alix Kemp
The local food movement has taken off in Alberta, evidenced by an exploding interest in farmers’ markets, increasing numbers of restaurants that boast locally sourced produce and a growing contingent of food-centric festivals. But it turns out that eating local doesn’t just mean eating foods found close to home. Some tourists are taking it a step further, travelling the province to explore its burgeoning culinary scene. Culinary tourism has been a growing phenomenon globally, thanks in large part to a growing interest in food and food preparation demonstrated by the surging popularity of food television and shows like You Gotta Eat Here! and Top Chef Canada. Laura McGowan, a tourism development officer with Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation, says the growing popularity of the Food Network was a catalyst for the growth of culinary tourism in the province. “We’ve been working on culinary tourism for a while now, and back when we started, there was a lot of skepticism about why we were doing this and why we thought that Alberta could be a culinary destination or have a culinary story to tell,” she says. “Now people within Alberta, not just visitors, want to see what Alberta’s food story is, and what our agricultural history is and our aboriginal history.”
WEB EXTRA: Upcoming Culinary Tourism events in Alberta
While attracting foreign visitors is a large part of the province’s tourism strategy, the vast majority of the province’s tourists are travelling close to home.
The average tourist spends more than a third of his or her vacation money on food and beverages, while those who travel primarily for culinary experiences may spend as much as half of their travel budget on food.
Domestic tourists from B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta itself made up 94 per cent of Alberta’s tourist visits and 76 per cent of tourist expenditures in 2011. Richard Starke, Alberta’s minister of tourism, parks and recreation, says those travellers are often keenly interested in getting a literal taste of what the province has to offer. “One of the things about the travellers that come to Alberta that we’ve identified is that they are what we call ‘cultural explorers,’” he says. “We’ve done this demographic examination of the type of tourists we typically welcome to the province, and many of them are people who really want to get an experience of what our culture is like. And of course, part of that is food.”
It’s estimated that the average tourist spends more than a third of his or her vacation money on food and beverages, while those who travel primarily for culinary experiences may spend as much as half of their travel budget on food, making food tourism a potential cash cow for the hospitality industry. That’s why the province has been putting a great deal of effort into building its culinary brand. Over the past three years, the Department of Tourism, Parks and Recreation has invested $600,000 in the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance (ACTA), a not-for-profit professional association that connects agricultural producers, restaurateurs and tourism professionals to promote food-based travel in the province. “A lot of people are coming for the mountains, they’re coming for the Calgary Stampede and for various events that are going on,” says Tannis Baker, the interim executive director of ACTA. “But the question is – what are they eating? And that’s the piece we’re trying to tackle.”
Attracting foreign visitors is a large part of the province’s tourism strategy, but tourists from B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta still made up 76 per cent of tourist expenditures in 2011
The growth of food culture and culinary tourism has been particularly notable in Alberta’s major cities. Karen Anderson, the owner of Calgary Food Tours, says her business has grown from attracting primarily locals to visitors from elsewhere in the province and abroad. “In the past week, I’ve had people from North Carolina and Norway, from Canmore and High River,” she says. Her tours help travellers identify the places to eat during the duration of their stay in Calgary, making their vacations that much better. But culinary tourism isn’t just about fine dining – one of Anderson’s tours is a chef-guided exploration of the Calgary Farmers’ Market, where participants can meet many of the market’s agricultural producers and learn how the food is grown and prepared.
Since 1984, the Taste of Edmonton festival has been offering guests the opportunity to sample the (often deep-fried) cuisine of more than 50 local restaurants. But in 2013, the festival introduced a new component to make the event more interactive, called Sip ’n Savour. A smaller, contained venue focused entirely on local food, the Sip ’n Savour tent offers wine and beer tastings, pop-up restaurants and a series of culinary workshops. This year, it launched a series of “Culinary Adventures,” tours visiting local breweries and markets.
But it’s not just the big cities that are hopping on the culinary bandwagon. After all, most of the province’s food is grown in rural areas, and the increasing interest in learning where our food comes from means that culinary tourism has the potential for huge growth in rural markets. Baker says the rural communities still have a ways to go when it comes to promoting themselves as culinary destinations. “If you take a look at other markets [besides Edmonton and Calgary], I would say we’re still at the infancy stage,” she says. “There are some great things that are happening, but there’s so much more that we have to offer that we haven’t found a way to package and promote yet.”
To help those smaller communities create that culinary brand, ACTA provides consultation services to towns and organizations that want to put on culinary events, including a long-table dinner in Markerville. The town, population 42, closed its main street, filled it with a single long table and served a meal created using local produce and featuring food by a number of well-known Alberta chefs, including John Jackson of Charcut Roast House and Duncan Ly, the executive chef of Hotel Arts Group. ACTA also consulted on Elk Island National Park’s Bison Festival, which will have a culinary component, including bison cooking demonstrations by local chefs. “We want to make sure if you go to an event, that culinary piece is authentic and local; it’s not a burger and fries that you can get at any kiosk,” Baker says.