Editorial | Give tourists local food
It will surely take more than platform speeches from Government ministers to get the hotel industry to embrace local foods and understand the concept of satisfying the emerging food tourist.
Appeals, like the most recent one from Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw, for hotels not to fly in foreign foods with their guests, have more or less fallen on deaf ears over the years and are not likely to yield the desired result. Indeed, there is no magic wand that will make hotels and restaurants resist spending scare foreign exchange on food imports.
Yes, Minister Shaw, there has to be a “strategic plan”, as you have acknowledged.
Prodding local farmers to produce more varied crops and hoteliers to go local will not come to fruition unless and until there is a well- formulated plan. The key players, including farmers, hoteliers and others in the hospitality sector, must get together and determine the way to develop a sustainable culinary tourism that will celebrate the gastronomical treasures of the island.
Considering the fast strides made by tourism of late, sceptics are questioning the true contribution of the sector in narrowing the island’s trade deficit. Tourism activities have certainly helped to put a dent in unemployment since it’s a labour-intensive service industry.
In many ways, too, it has improved the brand and contributed to cultural enrichment. Several businesses – including transport operators, tour operators, attractions, entertainers and craft vendors – appear to be flourishing from tourism.
However, there is also evidence that foreign ownership and highly-paid expatriate workers are bleeding the foreign exchange till. There is further leakage of the tourist-generated income when we tally foreign imports of food and materials for the sector. Why, with all the new investments in tourism, is the Jamaican dollar under such pressure, is the question many Jamaicans are asking.
Sector leaders acknowledge that food has been identified as one trigger for destination choice and even though there is a paucity of research to determine which foods offer the greatest cultural experience for our visitors, it is a fact that food is an important part of an authentic travel experience.
The savoury and unique dishes which are available in Jamaica help to connect tourists to this destination. For example, it is word of mouth more than any advertising which has been responsible for making “jerk” a household name and most copied flavour all over the world.
Having said that, we understand that there are some visitors who prefer familiar foods and so the sector has to cater to those persons as well and may have to satisfy such palates with imports.
NO GROWTH IN AGRICULTURE
There have been recent announcements forecasting new sprawling developments which will add some 15,000 new rooms to the hotel sector in the next few years. It is a concern that while the steel is coming out of the ground, there is no commensurate growth in agricultural offerings. In other words, tourism growth is not providing a stimulus for agricultural development.
Where are the new acreages of farming? What is the encouragement being given to lure new entrants into agriculture? Where are the incentives to encourage diversification and modernisation in farming?
Hoteliers are in business and they want to be assured of consistent price, quality and regular supplies of foods and materials. We don’t expect those in the hospitality business to sit and wait for farmers to get their act together. For it is a fact that many of the lifestyle entrepreneurs who are engaged in farming do so on a small scale and may be hard pressed to meet the growing demand for authentic products.
Many producers are needed to meet the complex and varying food needs of visitors to the island. Their efforts need to be properly coordinated and incentivised. These producers must then work towards the goal of ensuring that more tourist arrivals will be driven by an agile culinary sector, using authentic local inputs.