Food: a must do

Gastronomy is one of the areas with the most potential for local tourism. Not only because there is interest from tourists but also because it allows for the development of local identity – unlike luxury shopping, for example.

MB July 2020 Special Report | Crossroads of Macau tourism

“Macau is known for its food as much as its gambling scene,” states Professor Ubandino Sequeira, Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT), Macau.

“Long before the boom, there were tourists who came to Macau for authentic Portuguese food, and now we have millions of tourists in Macau who enjoy the food,” adds this long-time researcher on the topic.

Professor Fiona Yang, of the Hong Kong Science and Technology University, confirmed that when, along with other colleagues from Macau and Hong Kong, she studied the branding effect of Macau Food Festival.

“From the descriptive statistics we do see that the attendees of Macau Food Festival had a positive evaluation regarding Macau as a culinary destination,” she summarizes to Macau Business, explaining that, in this research the mean scores of food quality image, food tourism image and culinary destination loyalty were all higher than 7, where 5 was neutral.

There is more scientific research which confirms this assessment.

Two years ago, Zhaoyu Chen, from the School of Hotel and Tourism Management, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, published a qualitative pilot study exploring tourists’ pre and post-trip perceptions on the destination image of Macau and the findings were clear: “Although [most tourists] had no specific plans for their trip, they had several ideas about the food in Macau.”

This researcher goes further: “it became a must do activity for tourists to follow food recommendations from either food bloggers or friends.” Frequently mentioned items included egg tarts, pork chop buns, eggettes, and beef jerky, “all of which are famous local food items discussed in the media.”

Mr Chen quotes one of his respondents, mentioning that he and his friends wanted to, “experience tastes that are different from the food in the place where they live,” which indicates that food typically distinguishes a destination. It is not surprising that tourists have such perceptions, because Macau is also designated among the UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy, he concludes.

The question is how many of those tourists came specifically for food? “Hard to tell,” answers Ubaldino Couto, lecturer in Festivals and Events, School of Hospitality Management, IFT. “But in all honesty, how many would travel for food only? Previous research shows foodies are interested in exploring local foods and engage in activities related to food, but that doesn’t mean they don’t consider other aspects of the destination apart from food. Therefore, we should continue to work on our brand as a gastronomy city, continue to encourage the young to pursue careers in food, and make sure our food heritage lives on, and by extension, continue to attract and to cater for these hungry tourists.”

Fiona Yang also agrees that the question is not if Macau is a culinary destination but, “to what extent its culinary image can contribute to tourism diversification still.” Ms Yang understands that this question, “needs further exploration, which needs economic evidence as underpinnings.”

One of those questions is to know, “who are the target group that the Macau government want to focus on? Answering this question will be very important,” states Jacey Choe, from the Faculty of Business Administration, University of Macau. “In other words, there is a need to identify who are the people who plan to visit Macau because one of the (not primary or necessary) motivating factors for traveling to Macau is food,” she explains to Macau Business. “Answering this question from diverse perspectives is necessary, for example from demographic factors (e.g. female 20-30, their income, where they come from), food related personality perspectives (e.g. food neophiliac vs food neophobia) and activity perspective (what kind of food related activities do they like in Macau?).”

“food tourists want to learn how to eat the food, and the meaning behind the food. Food tourists consume the culture of Macau through food consumption here” – Jacey Choe

Another question presented by Professor Choe is the need to, “develop more representative local food (e.g. Lord Stow’s Bakery’s egg tart) that can appeal to tourists. For example, if you come to Macau, you ‘must’ eat this. The food has to be easily packed and carried in a box so that tourists can bring the food as souvenir for their friends and families back home.”

And, “more representative local food,” is precisely the main subject of the Portuguese researcher Marisa C. Gaspar, who has been doing award winning work and post-doctoral research on the articulation of food, tourism and heritage studies, with the economy of culture and the construction of identities embedded in complex political and economic processes in Macau.

This anthropologist is particularly interested in the identity of the creole Macanese Eurasian community, whose gastronomy is one of their strongest points of identity. “Macanese culinary reflects the community ethnic and cultural identity,” she tells Macau Business.

While acknowledging that, “the majority of Chinese tourists in Macau go after what is different and exotic to them, and food is an essential part of what they are looking for in Macau”, although in general they, “cannot distinguish, for instance, Macanese cuisine from Portuguese cuisine, so it is necessary to teach or to market the richness of Macanese culinary arts history throughout the centuries”. Marisa C. Gaspar argues that the Macanese community is concerned about the lack of authenticity and that some recipes have been commercialized in Macau restaurants with “tourism massification” has been seen more recently. For this reason, she recalls, “safeguarding of a unique intangible heritage such as Macanese creole culinary is mandatory for Macau’s identity and the government strategy of tourism diversification, and also mandatory now that Macau is one of the UNESCO creative cities of gastronomy.”

“Storytelling of local food is always important since epistemic value is something that food tourists seek and appreciate,” summarizes Jacey Choe, co-author of the Development and Validation of a Multidimensional Tourist’s Local Food Consumption Value (TLFCV) scale (2019). “For example, food tourists want to learn how to eat the food, and the meaning behind the food. Food tourists consume the culture of Macau through food consumption here. Local food is the easiest and most convenient way for tourists to experience the local culture. Storytelling does not have to be complicated or a boring history related thing. Any simple story that connects a tourist and the food will be meaningful for tourists,” she tells Macau Business.

Is there food tourism?

“It depends on how you define it,” answers Professor Jacey Choe, from the Faculty of Business Administration.

If it is, “visitation to primary and secondary food producers, food festivals, and restaurants”, maybe they exclude general tourists who have a keen interest in diverse food and beverages. “If I apply this definition for food tourism in Macau, I doubt that food tourism exists in Macau. In other words, there will be very few people who choose to visit Macau for food only.”

By contrast, the World Food Travel Association defines “food tourism” in a significantly simpler way as, “the pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both far and near”.

Professor Choe admits this definition is too broad in the sense that almost all tourists can be involved in culinary tourism and cultural exploration, because tourists will at least have more opportunities to consume local food in a destination than they do in their daily lives. “If I apply this definition to food tourism, every tourist in Macau can be called food or culinary tourists since almost everyone will at least try to eat local food here.”

Jacey Choe agrees with more recent scholars who, “have more flexible opinions toward the definition of food tourism:” each tourist can deeply enjoy local food delicacies, but if their primary motivation to travel is not necessarily food, they should not be excluded from food tourism.