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Food and wine tourism: the demand is changing between overtourism and declining domestic tourism

Word from Roberta Garibaldi’s “Food & Wine Tourism and Sustainability Report”. The search for green & social experiences and “sustainable destinations

After Covid, there was hope for a new form of sustainable tourism, with less overtourism and more travel in our country. But, after a 2022 of “revenge tourism”, demand for airline flights and the presence of international tourists grew in summer 2023, and domestic flows dropped due to the general increase in costs. Italian tourists are often the market base: although foreigners usually spend more, they are the ones who travel year-round and visit inland areas. In Italy, 47% of foreign arrivals are concentrated in only six provinces-Venice (12%), Bolzano and Rome (9%), Milan (6%), Verona and Florence (5%), while Italians have a much more even distribution. What has happened? The first response was that traveling abroad costs less, but in reality there is a significant shift, with the middle class continuing to have acceptable salaries and go on vacation (including abroad), while those with lower incomes or who are unemployed see their purchasing power eroding and give up travel, and the trend is European (in the UK in 2022 income fell 7.5% for 14 million people, while it rose 7.8% for the wealthiest, travel for Spaniards in Spain rose 25% from 2019, while the average income only rose 4.6%, and thus domestic tourism fell 5%). This is the snapshot taken by the “Food and Wine Tourism and Sustainability Report” edited by Roberta Garibaldi (with whom WineNews analyzed some highlights), with contributions from leading national and international experts and the support of Unioncamere and Rete Valpantena, presented yesterday, in edition No. 1 of “Agrifood Future” in Salerno.
Food and wine tourism is a strategic lever of sustainability, as also emerged from the discussion between Ermete Realacci, president Symbola-Fondazione per le Qualità Italiane (of which WineNews is also a member, ed.), Luigi Cabrini, chair Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Nicola Francesca of the SOStain Foundation, Andrea Rigoni of Rigoni di Asiago and Sara Roversi, founder Future Food Institute, among others-contributes to increasing the attractiveness of the destination and the reputation of local productions, creates widespread wealth and new opportunities for the tourism and agriculture supply chains, supports processes of rediscovery, protection and enhancement of the food and wine heritage, and increases the quality and safety of food by promoting a carbon neutral approach.
This is in theory, but in practice, what is the degree of sustainability achieved by food-related tourism activity? “The Report highlights, on the one hand, the change in demand, with a consumer increasingly oriented toward sustainable conduct that leads to precise choices of destination, activities carried out and socio-environmental consequences”, explains Roberta Garibaldi, “and on the other, the need for a change of pace at the level of strategic vision of supply. There is a need for political actions capable of managing flows in a more sustainable way, relaunching in a green and social perspective the economies of food from production to consumption. In essence, move to action”.
And, to do so, the Report’s highlights to keep in mind are 10, alongside the changing tourism scenario and growing inequality to the approach to travel. Starting with rural areas as a sustainable solution and the return of Covid-era day trips. New scenarios are opening up, food and wine tourism can move visitors to areas of great appeal, yet accessible. Reducing the distance between urban (or high inflow) and rural (lower inflow) areas creates economic, social and cultural value. One example? With the work of Franco Pepe, the world’s best pizza maker, in Caiazzo, where his restaurant “Pepe in Grani” is located, arrivals and accommodations in this inland Caserta town almost doubled from 2018-2022 (+93% and 89%). How to create these connections? An integrated development plan, easier transportation, digital reservations, international promotion. Going through the creation of food and wine hubs, multipurpose spaces for access to local heritage, and tourist itineraries to discover smaller villages and their culinary culture. Those who govern tourism should support the adoption of sustainable approaches also through soft power actions-regulatory changes, training, knowledge exchange, moments of valorization of local good practices also with ad hoc awards-and incentives. And increase its visibility (and reputation) as a sustainable food and wine destination by adopting a coherent, omnichannel outward communication strategy.
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the protection of food and wine heritage passes through tourism. The loss of Italy's food biodiversity and culinary culture would cause significant damage to the entire system-Country. The enhancement of food and wine tourism brings benefits in terms of tourism development, additional income for the agricultural system, but also to support processes of protection and enhancement. The Unesco candidacy of Italian cuisine can also play in favor of this goal. Actions are needed to protect the food and wine landscape and educate new generations, and the bill now being discussed in the Chamber is an important step.
And enhancing artisans and historic places of taste-more than 1 in 3 Italians have visited them during their travels - by capitalizing on the virtuous models analyzed in the Report, ranging from SoStain, the first Sustainability Protocol for Sicilian viticulture, led by Alberto Tasca of Tasca d'Almerita, the first Sicilian winery to obtain B-Corp international sustainability certification, to Piper-Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck and Rare Champagne, the first producers in Champagne to achieve B-Corp certification, from Alois Lageder’s “light bottle” initiative in South Tyrol for a sustainable future, to plant care through advanced technologies at Castello di Montepò in the Tuscan Maremma, from the sustainable innovation of Vinventions’ “Nomacorc Ocean” stopper adopted by the Sicilian label Donnafugata, to Cantina Salcheto, a pioneer among the Nobile di Montepulciano vineyards of sustainability certifications and initiatives, from urban vineyards, united in the Urban Vineyards Association, as a driver of a new food and wine tourism, to educational wineries such as the Veneto-based Ca' Rugate, from Agriexperience the online platform that connects nature and tradition enthusiasts with sustainable farmers, to the Iaccarino family's Don Alfonso 1890 restaurant with its historic organic farm in Punta Campanella between the gulfs of Naples and Salerno, from the Foresteria Planeta in Menfi, capable of combining luxury, hospitality and sustainability, to the Venissa Restaurant that stands out for its gastronomic sustainability, innovating with dishes made with weed fish from the Venice Lagoon, to name but a few.
Food and wine tourism also has an educational/transformative dimension. Poor diet and low physical activity are serious individual and public health problems, increasing the risk for chronic diseases. Italians are (OECD data) among those with the highest risk of obesity as well as the most sedentary young people. The food and wine tourist experience becomes an opportunity to acquire healthier habits: it can improve nutritional awareness and, through edutainment, provide guidance to improve one’s habits, so much so that 7 out of 10 tourists would like to find menus with healthy recipes on vacation. It offers opportunities to regain mental and physical well-being by combining the discovery of local food and wine with light sports activities (walking and biking tours among vineyards, olive groves).
Tourism and agriculture are both responsible for climate change and suffer its consequences in a domino effect: a global problem to which local responses are needed to address. Here is where food and wine tourism can be a solution, as it can combine slow forms of discovering and experiencing the land with sustainable agricultural practices that care for the environment and ensure quality and safe products.
Paradoxically, however, the Report shows a decline in Italians’ attention to sustainability when traveling. Tourists show less attention to respecting the environment and containing waste and consumption while traveling. 65% (76% in 2021) say they avoid wasting food in hotels and restaurants, 54% (vs. 75%) are environmentally friendly, 51% (vs. 61%) do not put towels in the accommodations to be washed every day, 27% (vs. 51%, for a drop of as much as 24 points) use public transportation or bicycles to get around the destination. There is evidence that, often, statements are not matched by actual behavior, so there is a need to help travelers by informing them in a simple and transparent way and supporting them in their choices.
Tourists’ desires? Local products, attention to the environment and people, and business ethics. Sustainability is a driver of choice in the food and wine experience, generating attention, stimulating participation. High is the attention to environmental issues: for 75% of respondents, tastings, lunches and/or dinners based only on local products are among the determinants in their choice. In addition, adopting separate waste collection systems (73%), water saving (66%), energy from renewable sources (66%), being plastic free (63%) and other green conduct guide tourists, but these initiatives must be explained before and during the visit. Corporate behaviors and social ethics initiatives are also taken into account, partly dispelling the widespread opinion that sustainability is only about the environment. 68% are more likely to experience where the company has projects that support the local community, and 64% if staff or suppliers are dealing with hardship and/or the company has adopted ethical policies.
Even when choosing a destination, sustainability is a “focal point”. Italians carefully consider whether and how sustainable the destination they are about to visit is. What elements do they take into consideration? The possibility of staying in green facilities (for more than 3 out of 4 travelers), getting to the destination by low-impact means, getting around locally by bicycle. But there are still too few destinations (and companies) that have sustainability certification in tourism.
Fundamental is communicating sustainability to create value for tourists. Travelers want to be clearly informed about sustainability. Before departure and during the experience: 6 out of 10 Italians would like to know in detail about techniques to minimize impacts on the environment, staff and company wellness initiatives. Being sustainable needs to be shown and communicated to one’s customers, suppliers, area operators and the local community so that it becomes added value. And also to tourists: integrated and consistent communication stimulates travelers and induces them to buy.
Finally, businesses need to take action. The interest of tourists is there; it is up to businesses to work to meet this need and turn it into added value. How to do this? Start by checking what you are doing and measuring the level of sustainability from the checklists in the Report. Contact consultants in the field, choose the certification to obtain, participate in one of the many existing calls for proposals that can cut costs. Remembering that data show that highly sustainable companies are 10.2% more productive than those that do not take any initiative.

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