With F&B gaining importance in travel itineraries, Express TravelWorld finds out what tour operators and international tourism boards are doing to grab a slice of the vegetarian travel pie
The profile and preferences of the Indian traveller has changed considerably in the last decade. F&B today forms an integral part of Indian travellers’ experience, including the inveterate vegetarian traveller. Considering that a significant segment, almost 60 per cent of Indian outbound travellers comprise this segment, they are an important focus group for tour operators and tourism boards. While Cox & Kings has its exclusive veg-only tours (for Jains and pure vegetarians) called Gaurav Yatra, Atout France and Switzerland Tourism publicise the list of Indian restaurants. And, culinary tours range from classes by celebrity chefs to local farmers’ market trips for picking up fresh products to visiting cookery schools.
It is myth that Indian vegetarians insist only on Indian meals while travelling overseas. Their preferences have gone much beyond the traditional fare that they are used to at home. “They are also exposed to exotic vegetarian fare found in Italian, French, and American cuisine. For those who prefer continental food, vegetarian Italian food is just as flavoursome, varied and hearty as its meatier fare, ” says Karan Anand, head, Relationship, Cox & Kings, pointing out that Thai veg food, with its aromatic curries, fragrant sauces and exotic veg ingredients like tofu to bamboo, is savoured by vegetarians across the world.
Surprising though it may seem, there is a long list of vegetarian friendly destinations, for instance Taiwan which belies common misconception. Amod Thatte, head Product, Contracting and Innovation, SOTC Travel, acknowledges that people are now opting for green travel packages. “The demand from tourists who travel abroad who are vegetarians or opting for a vegetarian package is constantly on the rise and gaining ground. With the number of Indian tourists travelling abroad for leisure and business growing tremendously, countries have begun recognising the potential. Belgium, Glasgow- Scotland, Germany, France, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Thailand and Jordan are some vegetarian friendly destinations and cater to the vegetarians specifically,” he says, adding that while Jordan makes it quite easy on vegetarians, with its deep rooted Buddhist culture vegetarian food is easy to find in Thailand, and Belgium is on the fast track to becoming associated with a vegetarian lifestyle, in particular the city of Ghent, which is home to the largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
A majority of Indian travellers within this market segment want to combine other activities, such as participating in heritage, cultural, and nature-based activities with culinary activities. “Women travellers are a growing segment. These travel groups prefer a busy itinerary and like to squeeze in maximum activities during the trip like wine tasting etc,” adds Thatte.
Many global destinations today have well known (and sometimes iconic vegetarian restaurants). Manpreet Singh, VP and head – MICE, FCM Travel Solutions India, points out that in London, an increasing number of restaurants are committed to creating vegetarian gourmet dishes. Amaya, Pied à Terre and Vanilla Black are a few names to indulge in some of the finest vegetarian flavours across the city. “Additionally cities like Dubai, apart from being a land of Shawarma, have a lot to offer in terms of vegetarian gourmet. Places like the Bombay Brasserie, XVA Café and Armani are a select few to boast about the vegetarian food culture of the city. Another one of the greatest food cities in the world, New York, has a variety to share in the veg gourmet section. From Avant Garden, Bouley to Gramercy Tavern the city has a lot to offer,” mentions Singh.
Club Méditerranée, commonly known as Club Med, a pioneer of the premium all-inclusive holiday concept, has a strong focus on taking care of the preferences of Indian vegetarian travellers at its resorts that are frequented by Indian outbound market. “We have live Indian cuisine stations at our buffet restaurants in Kani Maldives, Bali Indonesia, Bintan Indonesia and Cherating Malaysia to cater to both Indian and foreign guests who would be able to savour a variety of Indian delicacies and vegetarian cuisines,” shares Manoj Upadhyay, business development manager, Club Med India.
Though an evolving and niche segment, there is a section of HNI vegetarian travellers who look for curated F&B experiences. From cooking classes by well-known chefs to picking up fresh products from local markets and much more. Cox & Kings has curated such itineraries for UK, France, Switzerland, Australia and Singapore. “We have launched culinary tours in partnership with renowned chefs from across the world. We have specific itineraries that combine food, wine and self-drive vacations under the brand name Enroute,” mentions Anand. He advises that those who looking for both luxuries and exotic experience from their vegetarian vacation should visit luxury farm resorts in Fiji which feature a large variety of fruits and plants including Fiji vanilla plants.
F&B has become an important component, in fact a deciding factor for some in selecting a place to visit. “The demand for culinary tours are rising as Indian travellers become more informed and experimental. At Flight Shop, seeing the rise in demand, many of our short tours cater solely to food and beverage sector, for example: Wildfoods Festival in New Zealand, Watercress Festival in England, Blue Food Festival in Tobago to name a few,” states Singh. He informs that curated experiences like the tea tasting trails in smaller towns of China, the whisky trail in Scotland, wine tours in the French campagne and South Africa, cheese tours in the outskirts of Amsterdam, chocolate tasting in Belgium and more, are the most in-demand for the destination’s speciality and delicacy.
Taking the growing importance of food to holiday-makers, the future of culinary tourism looks promising. “Gastronomy plays a major role in the way tourists experience a destination, in fact some travellers would return to the same destination to savour its unique gastronomy. Various tourism boards and destination marketing campaigns are now promoting the culinary potential of their destination,” says Thatte, adding that a high percentage of travellers, consider dining and food as relevant activities during their travels.
Culinary festivals to highlight local delicacies is likely to see marked growth in the future, while organic farmers’ markets to generate interest in healthy cuisines could be another trend in culinary tourism. “Local food holds much potential to enhance sustainability in tourism and contribute to the authenticity of exploring a destination. Our packages are specially crafted for travellers with a passion for good food and normally include gourmands and chefs, young individuals, HNIs and FITs,” adds Thatte.
F&B in focus
While most destinations across the world have geared up to cater to the growing surge of of vegan and vegetarian travellers, including those from India, there are a few countries that have vegetarian cuisine as an integral part of their culinary culture. For instance, Jordan, where finding vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants is not too much of an effort with menus dotted with mezze dishes like falafel, hummus, tabbouleh and Arabic flatbreads. “A closer look at menus or locals’ plates will tell you that Jordanians are in fact quite partial to fresh fruit and veggies – there are lots of salads with natural dressings like lemon and olive oil,” says Ashit Taneja, country manager, Jordan Tourism Board, adding that while vegetarian fare is easy to locate at most places around the country, Beit Sitti – which translates roughly as ‘my grandmother’s kitchen’ – in Amman, is highly recommended. So is Feynan – an eco-lodge in the middle of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, where visitors to the reserve can gorge on falafel, hummus, delectable vegetarian stews and flat breads baked by Bedouins.
Oman is another destination where vegetarians will not have to struggle for good food. Reminding that Oman’s culinary tradition offers an interesting blend of Arabian and Indian influences, Lubaina Sheerazi, India representative, Ministry of Tourism, Oman states, “Apart from authentic Omani food, the country also offers authentic cuisines from South India, North India, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey among others. The classic mezze platter which includes baba ghanoush (tastes like baigan ka bharta), tabouleh (vegetarian salad), fatoush (pita bread salad) served with hummus (chickpeas paste with olive oil and seasoning) and pita bread; is a must try dish. Relish this meal at any Middle-Eastern restaurant or try falafal served in Arabian-style flatbread (khubz).” The Omani coffee ‘Kahwa’ mixed with cardamom powder is available at high-end restaurants; often served with the country’s famous produce (dates) and classic Omani dessert ‘halwa’.
The options in Oman are wide ranging – hibiscus drinks and avocado milkshakes at Kargeen Café for an open-air Arabian experience to Bait Al Luban known for its authentic Omani cuisine and Mumtaz Mahal, awarded Best North Indian cuisine in Oman. “For the ones who want to have authentic cuisine must try Turkish Diwan for its vegetarian friendly food options and the ones craving for some home food can relish South Indian food served at Saravana Bhavan,” says Sheerazi. For unique food experiences, the recommendations are The Cave in Muscat, The Jungle restaurant, and Dunes by Al Nahda a luxury boutique desert resort.
In Europe, France is a destination where vegan and vegetarian food is becoming popular with an increasing number of French nationals preferring vegan options. “In fact certain regional cuisines such as the Cuisine Nicoise and the Provencal cuisines showcase a lot of vegetables thus making these speciality cuisines a favourite options amongst vegetarians,” says Sheetal Wadhwa Munshaw, director – India, Atout France, reminding that contemporary France is home to many chefs who have understood the needs and requirements of vegetarian patrons and are fully equipped to present their tasteful creations that do not include any meat including renowned Michelin starred chefs such as Alain Passard.
Pointing out that French cuisine is renowned world over and the Gastronomic Meal of the French has earned it a much deserved World Intangible Heritage recognition by UNESCO, Munshaw states, “There is a growing interest in thematic trails such as wine and food tours from the India market. We have many visitors who would like to take on wine appreciation and tasting sessions, understand the finer nuances of wine and food pairing. The discerning FIT traveller is ready to take on cooking lessons with chefs, indulge in culinary tours, market visits and interact with local producers which in turn motivates us to showcase authentic experiences focused around gastronomy and wine.”
Closer home, Thailand is another destination that has a variety of gourmet experiences for the HNI Indian traveller. “Almost every key tourist destination in Thailand offers vegetarian food for both Indian or international cuisines. In fact there are some agents who have started organising a special trip just to try the vegetarian food in Thailand across variants which include Italian, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Indian,” says Soraya Homchuen, director, Tourism Authority of Thailand. The high-end restaurants range from Gaggan and Indus to those offering Thai vegetarian food like Blue Elephant restaurant in Bangkok and Phuket. Thailand offers special food tours depending on the tourist’s requirement. “Also, the current campaign ‘Discover Unique Local Experiences’ focuses on exploring the local Thai flavors,” adds Homchuen.
Interestingly, vegetarian restaurants are popular in Taiwan and easy to find, primarily because of the country’s vast Buddhist population, influence of I-Kuan Tao and other sects. Noel Saxena, country head, Taiwan Tourism Bureau, India believes that Taiwan is also the vegan heart of Asia, with over a dozen vegan restaurants in Taipei having opened in the last few years. “Even the ubiquitous 7-Eleven convenience stores sell frozen vegan meals, which one can microwave on the spot. From tasty traditional fare to exotic Indian, Asian, and newer Western offerings, Taiwan, to put it simply, is fast becoming a vegetarian’s paradise,” he mentions. Considering that more that 10 per cent of Taiwanese are vegetarians or stick to a vegetarian diet at least one every week, or twice a month, there are wide ranging vegetarian dishes including healthy vegetables, beancurd, mock meat or soya. “The government promotes eating vegetarian as a healthy choice, and regulates food labelling,” informs Saxena.
Weddings and MICE
F&B plays a major role to the overall success of any MICE event. SOTC partners with MICE destinations that offer global talent to curate personalised gastronomic experiences and themed menus using highest quality of ingredients and techniques. “Level of the quality of food and beverages served reflect your commitment to the event and directly play an important role in delivering excellence in services to clients,” asserts Thatte.
Jordan has been focused on attracting Indian MICE, showcasing its unique attractions. “Whether it is monolithic rock scapes of Wadi Rum or the lively centre of urban Amman; the majestic ruins of bygone civilisations to the historical and spiritual splendor of the Dead Sea, are all unveiled as unique MICE destinations offering breathtaking and mysterious sights, high standard accommodation, exquisite cuisine and countless activities,” remarks Taneja, adding that whether it is a conference for 5000 people, a lavish dinner in the desert of Wadi Rum, a barbecue at the shores of the Dead Sea,or a reception atop a medieval castle overlooking the Jordan Valley, the experience will be memorable.
Oman is gaining popularity as a preferred wedding destination among the HNIs. According to Sheerazi, luxury resorts like Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, Al Bustan Palace- a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Grand Hyatt, that host these weddings have well defined hospitality and F&B services as they offer wide range of multi cuisine options. The client can also bring their own cook from India to serve specially prepared meals.
Food is in fact one of the important reasons why Thailand, has remained the most popular destination for Indian weddings and MICE. “The reason why the destination is popular among Indians is because there are a number of restaurants and catering companies that specialise in vegetarian cuisine and meet the expectations of the guests for weddings and for the MICE segment. These hotels and catering companies offer multinational chefs and aim at providing quality services,” states Homchuen.
On account of its scenic natural beauty, in Asia Taiwan has emerged as a wedding destination and also a pre-wedding and engagement photography destination. Saxena adds, “The country has gradually been increasing MICE venues that meet international standards to add to the already existing TWTC Hall 1, Taipei Nankang Exhibition Hall 1, and TICC in the north, with the southern Kaohsiung Exhibition Center that was officially opened recently.” All F&B preferences can be met at these venues.