Many customs and traditions are shaped around food production and consumption, so that it is part of the fabric of any community. As a frequent traveller I love to experience first hand the dishes and flavours of different destinations. As a psychologist I’m interested in how food customs and cuisines shape and are shaped by their people. Here’s what I’ve learned.
What is food and drink tourism?
Food tourism is a concept that is flourishing around the world, with more and more people prioritising food and drink as a central part of their holiday plans. It even has its own category on Airbnb, who report that around 30% of their ‘experience’ bookings are now in the ‘food and drink’ category. Where food may have previously been viewed as a supplementary part to any trip, it now often plays a central role in tourists’ decision-making about destinations and experiences.
With this developing trend, psychologists have become increasingly interested in what leads people to make certain food choices and decisions, and have started to identify different types of food tourist. Psychologically speaking, food tourism isn’t just about eating and drinking. We get so much more from these experiences, from learning about new cuisines and cultures, to making new friendships, or getting to know a community.
How does food factor for you when planning a trip? How central is it to your choice of destination, or to your choice of activities when you ge there? Psychologists suggest that there are a number of different ways people enjoy food when travelling. Maybe some of these will resonate with you as they do for me.
The Gastronaut is your typical “foodie”, who devotes time and energy to learning about and experiencing fine dining and local delicacies. For the gastronaut, food experiences can be part of a lifestyle, where food choices are not just pleasurable experiences but can also come with a degree of social status. The gastronaut might simply enjoy the occasional fine dining experience, or they might prioritise pursuing culinary goals on any trip. You’re unlikely to find a gastronaut in the local chain restaurant, or sipping on instant coffee. If you’re a gastronaut you’re likely to get the most pleasure from a well-curated and thoughtfully prepared dining experience. But you don’t need to stick to fancy food and fine dining to consider yourself a gastronaut. I spent three years living in Singapore which is known for its exquisite and varied selection of eateries. In 2022 seven new restaurants have gained Michelin star status, taking the proud city state up to 52 Michelin star eateries in total. Whilst most of these are high end restaurants, hawker culture has been designated as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage item, and many hawker stalls in Singapore also have Michelin stars. So the gastronaut in Singapore can enjoy anything from a $5 hawker dinner on a plastic plate, to a $100 meal at a rooftop restaurant with views of the city skyline.
For some of us (me included) novelty can be key to enjoying food when you travel. The novelty seeker is strongly motivated by having new experiences. Food choices for these tourists are rarely about familiar comfort foods. These are the people who always chose the item on the menu that they haven’t had before. The novelty seeking food tourist is drawn to unfamiliar flavours, dishes, and dining experiences, whether that’s trying the local delicacy in a new destination, or seeking out that trendy new eatery that everyone’s talking about. Psychologists have found that for these tourists, the novelty aspect can significantly impact feelings of satisfaction, so that a delicious but familiar dish might be less satisfying than less tasty but unfamiliar dish. For the novelty seeker variety is key. This category really resonates for me. Nine times out of ten I’d rather go to a new restaurant than one that I know and love. This has led me to try many interesting, and sometimes weird, foods. Things like durian in Singapore, sand coffee in Athens, and caiphirinas in Copacabana (still my favourite cocktail of all time). When I travel to a new destination one of the first things I do it look up what the local delicacies are, and find the most interesting looking places to eat, from street food stalls to nice restaurants, and from coffee shops to cocktail bars. I love it all.
In some ways the opposite of the novelty seeker, this tourist knows what they like and gets the most pleasure from familiar foods and dining experiences. These tourists are more likely to seek out familiar flavours and dishes, and to prioritise returning to their favourite eateries. This approach comes with a sense of guaranteed enjoyment, and the comfort of having food that you know you love. Psychological research suggests that if these are your preferences you’re more likely to rate familiar dishes as tasting better than unfamiliar dishes, and are more likely to have favourite destinations and restaurants that you return to. Much of the enjoyment of these food experiences comes from the sense of comfort that familiarity brings. But being a familiarity foodie doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy novelty too. There’s a time and a place for everything, and our preferences change depending on all sorts of factors. Although I’m usually firmly in the novelty seeker category, having just returned to New Zealand for a visit, one of the first things I did was head to my favourite Wellington coffee shop for a flat white and a chocolate brownie.
For these tourists it’s all about how food experiences can connect them to the culture of their destination. Food is a way to learn about the people and the place, whether that’s through visiting local markets, experiencing food-related cultural events, wine tastings or attending cookery classes. Some psychologists have identified ‘cultural distance’ (how different a culture is from our own) as a factor influencing how much the culture seeking tourist enjoys a destination. Having food experiences that are culturally very different from what we’re used to can really enhance our enjoyment of a destination and make the trip more memorable. Because of the growing interest in food as a way to learn about the culture of a place, food tours and cookery classes have become increasingly popular. I love both of these experiences, and often gain so much from them in terms of learning new recipes, understanding a new culture, and making long-lasting friendships. It’s a great way to connect with local people and get first hand experience of cooking and dining customs. If you consider yourself a culture vulture and a food lover, then book yourself onto a cooking course on your next trip.
Which of these types of food tourist resonate most with you? What are your favourite food memories from holidays? What have been your most memorable food and travel experiences? Of course most of us don’t fall into only one of these categories, as you can see from my own examples. Sometimes we’ll want to prioritise familiarity over novelty, and sometimes that street food dinner will hit the spot better than any fine dining experience could. So I encourage you to reflect on what your food priorities are and to be mindful of this when planning your next trip, so that you can get maximum enjoyment and satisfaction from your next holiday.
Baah, N. G., Bondzi-Simpson, A., & Ayeh, J. K. (2019). How neophilia drives international tourists’ acceptance of local cuisine. Current Issues in Tourism, <>23(18), 2302-2318.
Dimitrovski, D., & Crespi-Vallbona, M. (2017). Role of food neophilia in food market tourists’ motivational construct: The case of La Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain. Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing, 34(4), 475-487.