Food Tourism Brings Home the Bacon for California’s Economy

Jot Condie
President and CEO of the California Restaurant Association and Vice Chair of Operations for the California Travel and Tourism Commission

The restaurant industry has become a significant driver of tourism throughout California. Restaurants are contributing to the state’s record-breaking travel and tourism industry growth, creating jobs and providing local and state tax benefits. The intersection of restaurants and travel is critical to the ongoing strength and success of our economy.

The reason is simple: When it comes to choosing a destination, travelers are increasingly letting their taste buds decide. No longer is dining a secondary thought in the California experience. When considering how we can continue the momentum of California’s economic recovery and create great jobs, it is important to recognize the opportunities presented by culinary tourism.

California’s lifestyle, innovation and culture are appealing and irresistible to visitors, and the region’s unique culinary experience is a growing attraction. This trend is likely to continue as food, farms and farmers are celebrated and the farm-to-fork movement accelerates.

To showcase culinary opportunities across the state, Visit California will host its fifth-annual California Restaurant Month, a chance for local destinations to showcase the bounty of culinary riches available in their region.  Restaurants in participating destinations offer up celebrity chef events, wine-pairing specials, gourmet prix-fixe dinners, exclusive seasonal offerings and more to entice locals and visitors alike to explore and fall in love with the unique food experiences available throughout our Golden State.  So far, more than 30 destination groups have signed up to participate in the January campaign, with more to be added in the coming weeks.

Tourism-related dining is a massive part of California’s restaurant industry. Research from Dean Runyan Associates indicates that visitors to California spent approximately $26.4 billion on food and beverages services in 2013. That accounts for about half of the industry’s total sales of more than $60 billion, which generates $4.5 billion in tax revenue for the state.  In 2013, 965,800 jobs were supported and more than $34.1 billion was earned by employees in California as a direct result of the travel industry. The state and local governments also received more than $7 billion in tax revenue from visitors throughout the state.

Still, even with all this growth and interest, both restaurants and tourism have a ways to go to regain our pre-recession footing. There’s a lot of talk within the industry about the “new normal.” That is, people are less likely to return to their pre-recession dining out or travel habits, even when the economy rebounds. This theory has its flaws. The real “new normal” is that, through the recession, restaurants – with notoriously thin profit margins – and other businesses retooled operations to become more efficient and more creative with their offerings and marketing strategies to keep costs down and traffic up.

As recovery from the worldwide recession continues, there will be more opportunity for people around the world to pursue leisure travel. A study by MandalaResearch found that as many as a quarter of potential California visitors might choose our state because of food-centric opportunities only available here. Our state’s culinary bounty is particularly attractive among the next generation of travel consumers. Approximately two-thirds of Generation Y and Generation X potential tourists were at least somewhat interested in culinary travel to California.

What are these travelers looking for when they get here? The sky is the limit.

Among the 60,000 eating and drinking establishments across the state, there’s no shortage of iconic Californian experiences. Hot air balloon rides across wine country, food festivals, ethnic dining, guided restaurant tours and farm-to-table restaurant experiences – all of these and more are in demand. The fact that California has so many possibilities to offer means globe-trotting foodies are able to find anything they’re looking for right here in the Golden State. However, because the restaurant and tourism industries are becoming more interconnected, we need our travel and tourism partners, like Visit California, to continue their great work in attracting global visitors.

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