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Tourism provides a considerable contribution to the rural economy. In its latest findings published in July 2022, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reports that gross value added (GVA) from tourism in predominantly rural areas was worth approximately £11.5 billion in 2018.
The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines rural tourism as “a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s experience is related to a wide range of products generally linked to nature-based activities, agriculture, rural lifestyle/culture, angling and sightseeing”.
It refers to these activities in non-urban, otherwise known as rural areas, which are characterised by a low population density, landscape and land use that is dominated by agriculture and forestry as well as a traditional social structure and lifestyle.
“The rise of rural tourism is linked with emerging widespread nature and deeper forms of access to the less humanised landscape,” says Michele Filippo Fontefrancesco, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Gastronomic Sciences and honorary fellow of the Department of Anthropology of the Durham University.
Rural tourism is a direct product of the increased urbanisation that has taken place in recent decades and shaped our living environment, Filippo Fontefrancesco details. Widespread lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic restricted people’s mobility, subsequently accelerating rural tourism and leading to its extensive appeal and uptake among consumers, retailers and restaurants. UK farmers and country business insurer, NFU Mutual, has seen tourism become an essential part of the rural economy.
The role of food
Food has a strong connection to rural tourism, with consumers actively seeking information, guidance, education and experiences that bring together activities that celebrate food and nature. “Current trends go in the direction of appreciating those products that better express green, ethical and historical identity,” says Filippo Fontefrancesco.
There are two core strands to rural tourism and both of them lend themselves to the food industry and current consumer demands. Firstly, the increasingly popular branch of tourism is associated with fitness and sportive access to a non-urbanised environment. Secondly, rural tourism is linked to the search for authenticity, which is also about sourcing and finding local, typical food production. Food is at the heart of rural tourism’s identity.
“Consumers look at rural production as safer and strongly linked with traditions, meanings and possibly tastier than other products available in town,” Filippo Fontefrancesco adds.
FoodTech and Agritech startup CarobWay sees a flux of people and families participating in rural tourism. “The main idea is to learn where foods are coming from, get closer to mother earth, pick fruits and learn how to cultivate, how food origin is being grown, harvested and made,” confirms Udi Alroy, CEO and co-founder of CarobWay.
NFU Mutual explains that its farmers produce an excellent range of speciality foods and rural tourism allows consumers to sample them via specialist retailers and restaurants. “We see rural tourism as a gateway which gives the public the opportunity to experience the UK’s glorious rural landscape and heritage in close quarters,” Chris Walsh, farm specialist at NFU Mutual, relays.
Debunking rural tourism myths
Rural tourism understanding has shifted in past decades. Approximately 50 years ago, socialist writer Raymond Williams pointed out the process of cultural creation. Social anthropologist Filippo Fontefrancesco explains that this is the idea that the countryside intertwines opposite understandings of the country, which is “seen as a place of backwardness and unique access to nature and inner fulfilment”.
“The process continued and we are in a phase in which urbanites tend to identify rural communities as sort of paradisial realities, overlooking the daily struggles the communities face in terms of marginalisation, impoverishment and ageing,” he continues.
“Plus, the reality of agriculture is often mythologised, making it appear a sort of bucolic existence, without appreciating the important interrogatives producers have to cope with every day in terms of technical and technological development, as well as economic sustainability.”
Growing awareness surrounding the reality of agricultural life and food production helps rural tourism garner increased respect and a deep appreciation for the dedicated efforts required to provide local, authentic, nutritious and sustainable food amid the backdrop of rural tourism.
Appealing to consumer demands for fresh, authentic and healthy
Consumers want to go natural and fresh, getting as close to basic fresh foods and beverages as possible. “The main belief is that raw foods or fresh food is much healthier and, in most cases, fun and fascinating,” says Alroy.
Through its discussions with farmers, NFU Mutual finds that many people love the opportunity to stay in the heart of the countryside, where they can relax and explore as well as meet farmers who produce their food and share experiences and stories about their lives.
Rural tourism creates a unique opportunity for consumers, farmers, retailers and restaurants alike as, by its very nature, the concept brings together community, health and wellness and looking after the planet.
Factors propelling rural tourism
“Most tourists today are looking for new adventures while cuisine and culinary become one of the main themes when we travel globally,” says Alroy.
We seek local foods, local cuisine, exotic ingredients and most importantly, tourists are looking to be part of the creation of foods. As a result, we see more culinary tours, self-picking, cooking and farm vacations to give consumers a genuine rural tourism experience.
“Travellers are looking to enjoy the outdoors, going back to the sources of foods and beverages, especially as those are always representing culture, flavorism and open for new things,” Alroy shares.
From the UK perspective, recent obstacles with international travel have highlighted the rural tourism opportunities closer to home. “Global tourism is facing many challenges, from international tensions, long queues at airports, fast-rising prices and overcrowding at resort locations,” says Walsh. All these factors make the great value for money and easy access to a country retreat in the UK more attractive, Walsh states.
However, there are similarities between British and global rural tourism, as both are “linked with the search for an alternative experience of the environment, the recovery of the sense of roots and traditions, as well as the attempt of finding a safer and healthier environment compared with the one of a city”, Filippo Fontefrancesco details.
Ingredients, finished products, local food groups and retailers
Rural tourism comprises a rich interlinked network of passionate players keen to convey the benefits and beauty of rural tourism. Subsequently, local food groups and retailers that focus their selected stocked finished products on promoting locally sourced produce, hero ingredients and authentic provenance stories lead.
The growing food movement is having a significant impact on manufacturers’ ingredient selections and finished formulations. Origin, provenance and sustainability are important to today’s shoppers. “Consumers today would like to hear the story behind the ingredients and the food we eat, as well as climate change and environmental issues that impact our food,” says Alroy.
“Rural tourism changes the way we eat and observe foods,” Alroy emphasises. Today’s consumers want to know where our food’s ingredients have come from, how the farmers grow and cultivate the crops, what traditional and advanced methods they use and if they impact the planet. In addition, buyers want to hear stories about heroes and small businesses like bakeries, brewers and farms that make a difference.
With an increasing amount of on-the-pack information available at consumers’ fingertips, choosing natural, fresh and those perceived as healthier foods are clear demands. “We do not want to compromise on synthetic ingredients in our food,” Alroy notes.
“The chance to sample excellent local produce is one of the great draws of rural tourism,” says Walsh. The retailer’s role is to allow consumers to explore and enjoy product origin, fresh foods and specific ingredients such as exotics spices and herbs, Alroy details. “We see more and more retailers looking to incorporate innovative and new products that consumers can relate and contribute to,” Alroy notes.
“Shops which showcase the best of local produce are a real asset and local food groups also help visitors access the best food in the area they are visiting,” Walsh relays.
The future of rural tourism
“Overall, rural tourism is here to stay and grow,” says Filippo Fontefrancesco. However, the velocity of its growth is strongly affected by the overall economic instability we are living in at the moment, he adds.
In this respect, while rural tourism is a sector that welcomes investment to promote forms of slow and sustainable tourism, on the other hand, the “actual possibility of seeing the sector blooming next year is deeply jeopardised”, Filippo Fontefrancesco warns. That said, in a similar vein to events in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, considering the different sectors of the tourism industry, rural tourism may be the one “less touched by the uncertainty”.
Working with rural businesses, NFU Mutual states it sees a great future for 2023 with an increasing range of accommodation, food and attractions on offer to suit all budgets and visitor tastes. “We see tourism playing an increasingly important part in the rural economy, helping support farms as they move towards a greener, more sustainable future and providing jobs for isolated communities,” says Walsh.
Rural tourism does not only provide a beneficial vacation, but it is also an educated and wonderful experience that can be shared with family and friends. “I believe more and more people will take part in local tourism due to the fact that it is something completely different,” says Alroy.
It encourages consumers to try, engage, explore and feel connected to the people who grow and nourish our food and the planet. After all, celebrating outdoor tourism with lots of activities is hands-on, and most importantly, Alroy shares, promotes many new lessons in life, diet and experience.
“I predict that more people will open their house and their kitchen to tourists and this experience will connect us better to the hosts and maybe even move people to live in the countryside, grow crops, cook and enjoy the active life in a different way than going to the gym and drinking sports drinks,” highlights Alroy.
“Providing what today’s tourists desire is crucial to the success of rural tourism, and food groups are doing a great job providing access to the best local food our farmers produce,” adds Walsh.