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Should we be talking about food tourism now?

By Annicca Albano Published Aug 05, 2022 5:00 am Updated Aug 05, 2022 11:12 am

When I was little, I was constantly on short flights and long drives to see my large, widely-scattered family. School break meant escaping Manila to discover my ancestry through food, from the kilawing kambing of Ilocos and binagoongang baboy of Pangasinan, to letsong Cebu, La Paz Batchoy, and pretty much every sweet, luscious thing in the fruit basket called Davao.

This grand passion for food ultimately led me to a career in travel writing right after college. I took pride in telling strangers where to go, what to do, and how to eat the way locals do. Filipinos needed to know how beautiful our country is, and I made that my mission. Up until the pandemic, that is.

While tourism cannot solve all hunger problems at once, sustaining our local agriculture, food systems, livelihoods, and heritage may benefit us in the long run. 

I still remember typing up the last newsletter with the headline “another time for adventure” and sealing it with blind hope. The paradise I knew suddenly became cold and unfamiliar. Then came a slow but apparent re-emergence of home cooking, baking, and patronizing neighborhood businesses, as well as a deeper appreciation for quick walks to markets and quiet time in the garden. It was selfish to even suggest traveling, and by the end of 2020, I left my job.

Two years in lockdown and one of the worst economic recessions later, I stumbled upon the news that the new Department of Tourism secretary plans to put food tourism first. It was in support of President Marcos Jr.'s promise to invigorate the economy by getting Filipinos to travel again. I imagined people reconnecting with their friends and cultures, and the interesting diversions on my next road trip.

Traveling locally makes sense, monetarily and morally. When we seek authentic experiences, we tend to venture off the beaten path and instead wander around local neighborhoods on foot, stay at homestays, buy directly from street vendors, and try traditional dishes at local eateries.

The feelings of excitement I had shrunk into a lump in my throat. “Aanhin mo ang food tourism if food security in this country is in shambles? Aanhin mo ang pag glorify ng farm to table mindset if mismong magsasaka at mangigisda natin walang makain,wrote Facebook user Marvin Terce in his caption.

He was right. Those who can afford to travel will probably never have to deal with famine or malnutrition around us. Outside destination restaurants where we order too much and eat too little, locals are undernourished every day due to inequality.

That is also part of why, even with permission from the government to revenge travel, I feel a tinge of guilt stepping out of my home. How can I enjoy such a luxury when there are more pressing problems facing the country? Despite reallocating some of my travel funds to support relief drives and feeding programs, I couldn’t feel the impact of my actions.

"It dawned on me that while tourism cannot solve all hunger problems at once, sustaining our local agriculture, food systems, livelihoods, and heritage may benefit us in the long run."

Over breakfast, I told my father, a businessman and a farmer’s son, that someday I would raise awareness about hunger. Papa often lamented the situation of farmers: how they have it hard in times like these, especially without technology and knowledge. “Ngayon pa lang, kaya mo gumawa ng trabaho para sa iba,” he offered, adding that jobs help put food on their tables. Unlike Papa, I don’t have a team to grow. But it hit me that tourism can do that and so much more.

Traveling locally makes sense, monetarily and morally. When we seek authentic experiences, we tend to venture off the beaten path and instead wander around local neighborhoods on foot, stay at homestays, buy directly from street vendors, and try traditional dishes at local eateries. When we purchase something, part of our payment goes to tax that gets reinvested in communities, from infrastructure improvement and environmental maintenance to public services. Inevitably, our travels become bigger and create this positive ripple effect.

Every bite and peso spent can also influence processes and policies. In Cavite, Yoki’s Farm grows different kinds of lettuce and salad vegetables using hydroponics. Some are served to B&B guests, while others are supplied at nearby markets. Through farm tours, the staff are able to educate the public about the advantages of hydroponics, such as higher quality of food and a shorter supply chain. I have yet to visit Balik Bukid in Davao, which spotlights Maguindanao cuisine with a menu that changes with the season. By using what’s available on their farm, owners are able to cut food waste and transport costs. Cebu City, a major dining destination, boasts an ordinance requiring dining establishments, supermarkets, organized farmers, and culinary schools to distribute edible food surplus to selected food banks, providing people with access to nutritious fare amid surging inflation.

Then there are those immersive dining experiences that deepen our connection with food. Seeking out artisan food producers, farmers’ markets, fruit-picking activities, and cookery classes doesn’t just allow us to relive the positive aspects of the lockdown. In less obvious ways, these foodie trends also enable locals to keep our culinary traditions alive and pass those on to the greater Filipino community.

It dawned on me that while tourism cannot solve all hunger problems at once, sustaining our local agriculture, food systems, livelihoods, and heritage may benefit us in the long run. 

Still, I wonder if help really reaches those at the bottom, considering the rampant corruption, cronyism and lack of concrete plans from the government. Will small-scale farmers and business owners be provided with market access, logistics and financial training they badly need to thrive on their own? How can life improve for rural residents who are struggling to make ends meet on their land due to man-made conflicts and climate change? I'm afraid I don't have the answers, but I do know that in true unity, no one should be left behind.

In my past life as a travel writer, I learned that travel is both personal and a privilege. Even so, all of us are capable of respecting people, their culture, and their means of earning a living. From paying full price and leaving generous tips to prioritizing local-led tasting tours, we can make our travels more meaningful and the world less unequal. Most importantly, all of us have the right to hold our government accountable for turning tourism into a positive experience for everyone.

Food tourism, to me, goes beyond enjoying a good meal. It’s every colorful tale my grandparents told, in half Bisaya and half Tagalog so I’d understand, about the lands they tilled, animals their children cared for, suking tinderos they’d known their entire lives, and treasured recipes inherited from their parents. Despite my guilt, travel grounds me in reality. It reminds me of how fortunate I am in having so much to give, and what else is possible. I found that in embracing travel, rather than rejecting it, I’m able to celebrate the land I call home and help other Filipinos along the way. After all, who wouldn’t want to make the Philippines a more beautiful, better place to visit and live in?