#InstaFood: This is the 21st century’s most seismic tourism shift

The travel industry was slow to realise the potential of a simple Instagram picture of food – now it’s catching up

Catit was possibly the first to really work it out. An upmarket restaurant in Israel, they started serving their meals on plates whose colours complemented the food, rotated through 360 degrees, were specially lit and, crucially, incorporated a bracket to hold your phone. They’d realised the power of the perfect Instagram food shot, and were now supplying customers with the weapons to execute it.

And why not? The travel industry has been relatively slow to recognise the power of this new type of tourism and the role that social media plays within it. According to a survey conducted by the UN World Tourism Authority, 33 per cent of all tourism spending is on food, and tourism-based purely on food is worth an estimated $8 billion a year.

On Instagram in particular, #foodie, #foodporn and #nomnom all have more than 20 million images uploaded and they’re now providing inspiration for a new generation of travellers, and a new reason for people to explore destinations.

Dr. Mihir Nayak, Senior Lecturer for Hotel and Tourism Management at Fresenius University in Cologne, has a theory about why this is.

“Millennials – and let’s be honest, it is millennials using this technology – can’t really afford anything their parents could,” he said at a talk at ITB Berlin. “They can’t show off their new house or a new car, but they can luxuriate in the everyday pleasures of a great cup of coffee or a fabulous sandwich; food is now the only thing millennials really ‘own’. There’s little else to boast about. On top of that, you have the instant validation of your choices by getting all those likes after you post your pictures.”

#Laos feasting. Night market side alley in #LuangPrabang

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Is food and food choice really the new sense of how you define yourself to the world? It would seem that that’s the way the wind is blowing. Young people are drinking less alcohol than their parents, for example, and embracing the fact that in many places you can dictate precisely how you want your food or drink. If you want an iced, half-caff, ristretto, venti, 4-pump, sugar-free, cinnamon, dolce soy skinny latte, no worries.

Let me be clear, I don’t believe – as many would – that this is some sort of millennial entitlement rubbish; I just think that if you have the option to have something exactly as you’d like it, you should take advantage of it. I mean, you’re still paying for the service, so what’s the problem?

If I was given the option of “reasonable black coffee” and it cost 50p, sure, I’d expect exactly that. Cheap, no frills, no options. Fine. But if your one real luxury is food and drink, and you’re paying a decent amount of money for your indulgence, I have no problem with people wanting some bang for their buck.

This goes hand in hand with the other thing seemingly demanded by foodie travellers: authenticity. Ironic though it seems to see Instagram as a source of authenticity (how many filters and effects are you applying to that, by the way?), this does seem to be a real factor in why people choose to travel for food.

You can discover a place’s history and culture through its food. This is often one of the only things that have survived untouched for centuries, and therefore instills a legitimacy to using it as a source of inspiration, as a touchstone.

사쿠라 푸딩 🌸

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Tourism chiefs have realised this, and are now using local specialities as a selling point. Since Unesco started recognising certain regional foodstuffs as part of a country’s “intangible cultural heritage”, it’s clear that a food can only be the real thing if it’s from that region. The increasing homogenisation of destinations makes this distinction even clearer. Eating a wonderful carbonara in a Roman trattoria, or drinking a glass of champagne in Reims is an experience that is tied in with that place. You know you won’t get it better anywhere else on the planet.

Even if your foodie heritage doesn’t extend back as far as Armenia’s Lavash (the preparation, meaning and appearance of traditional bread as a cultural expression), you can still jump on the bandwagon in more modern ways. A few years back, Tourism Australia spent $8.6m on their #RestaurantAustralia campaign, pushing food and wine festivals around the country as a reason to visit. 21.5 million YouTube views, 1.2 million Instagram followers and thousands of tourists later, Australia had jumped from 10th to 3rd in Forbes’ Top Foodie Destinations, leapfrogging countries such as France, who’ve long been known for their food.

The other way to support a local economy, and a very popular way to, again, “legitimise” your travel experience, is to stay with locals and learn to cook traditional meals with them. In places where tourism is starting to be a consistent source of income – Cuba, for example, or Laos – locals are opening up their homes and recipe books to travellers willing to pay in order to learn a genuine niche skill.

So is this the future of travel? Maybe not overall, but as the search for things that are “real” continues as the world shrinks, this is the way the current generation of young travellers is choosing to explore it. And, while I don’t see the idea of Instagram-ready restaurants being more than a gimmick, there’s no denying that being able to show the world your legitimate little luxuries is a powerful driving force indeed.