Have you heard of culinary tourism? According to the International Culinary Tourism Association, it’s defined as the pursuit of unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences. Sounds a bit like agritourism, doesn’t it?

Culinary tourism experts, however, draw a distinction between their type of tourism and agritourism. Culinary tourism is considered a subset of cultural tourism because, they say, cuisine is a manifestation of culture, and agritourism, on the other hand, is considered a subset of rural tourism, according to Erik Wolf, author of “Culinary Tourism: The Hidden Harvest.”

The experts do acknowledge that culinary tourism and agritourism are strongly linked. “The seeds of cuisine can be found in agriculture,” says the Wikipedia entry on culinary tourism. So, maybe you’re already involved in it, without even realizing it.

The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) has recognized the opportunity that culinary tourism presents for Bay State farms, calling it “a novel and exciting opportunity for Massachusetts specialty crop growers and food and wine producers to market their product and business to a new customer: the culinary traveler.”

They say that research indicates that culinary tourism is a lucrative niche market that holds strong potential for economic and community development. To that end, the commonwealth has set up a Web site to provide farmers with culinary tourism information, resources and opportunities. The site also offers information for culinary travelers, such as listings of farmstands, farmers’ markets, maple sugarhouses, wineries and food events. And, it offers resources for chefs as well.

Using today’s method of measuring the popularity of a term or phrase, a Google search shows 75,000 results for the term “culinary tourism,” including numerous news articles and books on the topic, as well as both agriculture and tourism Web sites.

MDAR offers the following ways that farms can begin to capitalize on the culinary tourism trend:

  • Attend conferences—like the Harvest New England Direct Marketing Conference & Trade Show—where sessions on culinary tourism are offered.
  • Host group tours by contacting your state or local tourism office’s group tour director.
  • Join a “buy local” campaign.
  • Submit your farm festivals to be listed with other culinary events on culinary tourism and agritourism Web sites and in food publications.
  • Learn more by visiting the International Culinary Tourism Association Web site at www.culinarytourism.org.

Beyond hosting tourists directly, farms can also benefit from culinary tourism by selling to restaurants that target travelers. By purchasing locally produced farm products, chefs can offer their customers not only great-tasting food, but also the knowledge that they’re sustaining local family farms, preserving open space and supporting the local economy.

MDAR works with chefs looking for pastured raised beef, farmstead cheese, fresh turkey or organic produce, and suggests the following to food service professionals:

  • Become a member of the “Chefs Collaborative,” a community of chefs, farmers, fishers, educators and food lovers dedicated to promoting sustainable cuisine.
  • Join a “buy local” campaign.
  • Download the list of growers interested in selling to restaurants.
  • Purchase local value-added products from farms and specialty food producers.

The notion of planning a vacation primarily around food and wine sounds somewhat hedonistic, and in these volatile economic times, will tourists be as willing to indulge in such pleasures? With high fuel prices this past summer, the new buzzword was “staycation.” Like agritourism, culinary tourism is all about the experience. Folks may simply be looking for new culinary experiences close to home.

On its Web site, the International Culinary Tourism Association notes that historically, much of the food service industry has ignored tourism, feeling, “Why should we care? Tourists will only visit us once.” Farms could easily take the same attitude toward both agritourism and culinary tourism. The association says that thinking is beginning to change, due to the pervasiveness of the Internet and influence of word of mouth. If you’re targeting “local tourists,” they can easily become return customers.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.