Bosa Malvasia wine is native to the idyllic hillscapes of Western Sardinia. The best way to sample it is via the Bosa Malvasia Route. Founded through a public-private partnership, its itinerary takes visitors through the region’s gastronomic highlights. Its first stop is the family-run AgriBosa vineyard. Here, wine-tasting tours, a restaurant, and on-site accommodation add product value whilst helping consumers better understand what they are drinking.
By building the Bosa Malvasia trail, Sardinian businesses and authorities have capitalised on an emerging tourist niche known as eco-gastrotourism. Travellers are increasingly enticed by destinations that offer sustainable culinary experiences tied to regional identities. Eco-gastroutourism often goes hand in hand with agritourism, where tourists interact with local food cultures by visiting farms and other food production sites.
By emphasising regional food diversity and local value chains, eco-gastrotourism is set to leverage a growing market for domestic travel and ethical foods. Long-haul flights had already become contentious long before COVID restrictions pushed domestic destinations back to the top of our itineraries. At the same time, there is a growing consumer appetite for ethical foods. This reflects a mainstreaming of the slow food concept. Since its inception in the seventies, the slow food movement has championed local and sustainable food production over industrial farming, chemical processing, and carbon-intensive international supply chains. Eco-gastrotourism allows affluent urban populations to enact these environmental principles in their holiday choices.
Yet ecological gastrotourism doesn’t just benefit the service sector. It offers new revenue streams for sustainable food producers. Small-scale farms may become multifunctional businesses that sell tourist experiences and food products on-site. By offering themselves as sites of ethical consumption, low-margin enterprises can supplement their incomes, compete more readily against larger agribusiness, and ward off market pressures towards unsustainable cultivation.. Businesses that build a lucrative brand associated with eco-friendly production would be incentivised to maintain these practices into the future. Although sustainable development goals have historically been a tough sell in the commercial sector, eco-gastrotourism offers a rare opportunity to meld profit with social and environmental benefits.
Sustainable agriculture and tourism can become mutually supporting industries. Yet individual entrepreneurs cannot bring this about by themselves. Organisational frameworks are needed to transform agricultural regions into coherent eco-food destinations. The EU has a particularly well-developed set of institutions that serve this function. The Protected Designation of Origins scheme for example gives consumers assurance that the products they buy are unique to a particular region and adhere to traditional production methods.
A good example of how the Protected Designation scheme brings regional economic benefits is the cheese tourism sector in the Roncal valley in Spain. The oldest protected designation of origin in Spain was awarded to Roncal cheese in 1981. Twenty-six milk and cheese production areas here hold a protected designation of origin (PDO) while two of them hold a protected geographical indication (IGP). Archaeological finds suggest cheese-making began here thousands of years ago. Timeworn production methods are still in place – the cheese here is made using milk from animals that graze on land owned by the producers.
Ancient food heritage isn’t always a prerequisite for attracting visitors. In Arizona, an agritourism sector around the burgeoning winemaking industry has been built from the ground up since the 2000s. By 2017, tourism to the Arizona vineyards was creating around $56.2 million per year and an estimated 640 full-time jobs, with disproportionate benefits to the rural communities surrounding them. Tourists are mainly affluent city-dwellers from Phoenix and Tuscon, large cities in the centre of the state. Arizonan winemakers are now trying to gain greater visibility for their products through wine region designations issued by the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. So far, the Verde Valley, Sonoita, and Wilcox regions have obtained official recognition as wine-growing regions.
NGOs have a significant role in developing the sector. Created in 2014, the European Region of Gastronomy Platform is helping food regions by linking businesses, enabling knowledge sharing, and mounting international marketing campaigns. Regions accepted onto the platform are given the official title of a European Region of Gastronomy. Ten countries have so far joined, including the Minho regions of Portugal and Catalonia in Spain. After the Galway region of Ireland became a member in 2018, regional authorities began encouraging local food producers and SMEs to focus on creating dishes for the tourist market rather than for costly export.
For food producers to capture maximum value through tourism, they need to forge close relationships with local businesses. This is where organisations like the European Region of Gastronomy Platform are crucial for constructing coherent, value-adding regional supply chains. For example, connecting local food producers with restaurants is paramount for multi-functional farmers. Mark-ups for food increase drastically when farms sell through restaurants rather than directly to on-site visitors.
On top of supporting tourism around local food cultures, sustainable farms can also underpin heritage and nature attractions in their region. Low-intensity farming techniques tend to restore or maintain traditional landscapes. The EU has highlighted the links between heritage, food, biodiversity, and farming by officially recognising agricultural landscapes as a key expression of European culture.
Strategic links between agriculture, heritage, and nature tourism could be a key plank in environmental initiatives. The terraced landscape farming still practiced in parts of Italy and Greece is a good example. Stepped plateaus carved into the hills improve soil water retention, limits soil erosion, and accommodate wild flora and fauna. Italy’s Valtellina Valley is famous for these semi-wild agricultural landscapes. Local tourist organisations are taking tentative steps towards attracting visitors to their unique scenery that remains off the beaten trail.
Ecological gastrotourism isn’t limited to rural areas or even traditional soil-based farming. It has potential to expand into emerging agricultural sectors such as aquaponics. In Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Phood Kitchens markets itself as the world’s first aquaponics urban farm and restaurant. Customers dine-in next to their farm, brewery, and mushroom nursery. Eco-gastrotourism can also link traditional and emerging methods of sustainable food production. As green consumers embrace the health and environmental benefits of fermented foods, traditional industries like beer-making could gain fresh cultural impetus. Brewing centres may become rebranded as future food travel destinations where visitors can explore the deep history of ‘new’ food biotech.
Most of the discussion around the green economic transitions turns around energy supply and manufacturing. The question of how the services will fare in a sustainable economy attracts less attention. Sustainable food tourism offers one way of forging connections between the productive base of the green economy and its service sectors.
Much work remains to be done. Investment and planning in transportation infrastructure is essential in developing emerging travel routes and destinations. Producers may need new skills to diversify their business models. In all this, there is a critical need for NGOs that can mediate between businesses and public authorities so that education, infrastructure, and financing and be rolled out in a targeted manner that delivers above all for agricultural communities.