Food Luring More Visitors to Hawai‘i

Experts say culinary tourism is on the rise, both in the Islands and around the world.
Culinary Tourism Panel
The culinary tourism panel at last week’s Hawai‘i Tourism Conference—from left, chef Roy Yamaguchi, chef Jonathan Waxman, farmer Dean Okimoto, tour company owner Randy King and moderator Adam Richman—shared their love for travel and food and how that combination can benefit the state’s No. 1 industry.
Photo: Courtesy of Hawai‘i Tourism Authority


Browsing the Instagram feed of TV host and celebrity eater Adam Richman, it’s obvious this guy loves to eat in the Islands.


Kalbi, Laotian fried chicken from The Pig & The Lady, the cornflake French toast from Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Head Café—Richman knows where to get the kind of food we (locals) like to eat ourselves. At last week’s Hawai‘i Tourism Conference, he spouted off names of local dishes and eateries like he grew up here: manapua from Char Hung Sut, pipi kaula from Helena’s Hawaiian Food and yaki o paʻiʻai from Mud Hen Water. He’s dined at Rainbow Drive-In, Side Street Inn, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck, Eating House 1849, even Papa Ole’s Kitchen hidden in a strip mall in Hau‘ula that’s so under the radar, it could be considered a local foodie trade secret.


Yet there he was, standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people who attended the Hawai‘i Tourism Conference, sharing, with extreme enthusiasm, his love for Hawai‘i’s food scene.


“When I heard the Cheesecake Factory in Waikīkī was the most profitable one in the world, it broke my heart,” Richman said.


Like Anthony Bourdain and other well-traveled celebrity chefs, Richman, with nearly 180,000 followers on Instagram, is a major influencer in the world of culinary tourism, which is, simply put, the pursuit of unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences while traveling. Where Richman goes, his fans will follow.


“More and more people are traveling with food in mind,” Richman said. “When I was filming in Italy, you know I was texting [chef] Mario Batali in Rome and asking him where the hell am I going … Food is the one language we all speak. And more than ever, we are savvier eaters.”


An astounding 95 percent of American travelers say they’re interested in some kind of unique food experience when they travel, according to the 2016 Food Travel Monitor, a global study conducted by the World Food Travel Association. That’s up from 47 percent in 2013.


The surge in interest has to do with the combination of food-focused media—Food Network, BuzzFeed Food, American’s Test Kitchen podcast—the farm-to-table movement, and high-profile food events including food festivals.


“People want to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro and see [owner] Jiro [Ono] because of the movie [Jiro Dreams of Sushi] or because they saw Anthony Bourdain eating there just as much as they want to go to Harajuku because of Gwen Stefani,” Richman said.


Culinary tourism was the focus of Friday’s panel discussion, “From Farmer’s Market to Market Square: The Global Guide to Culinary Tourism,” at the conference. Richman moderated a panel that consisted of chef Roy Yamaguchi, chef Jonathan Waxman, farmer Dean Okimoto and Randy King, owner and president of Seawind Tours.


Yamaguchi, who recently opened his second restaurant in Waikīkī—Eating House 1849—at the new International Market Place, says culture and food are interwoven. You can’t separate the two.


“When I travel, I like to learn about the different cultures and cuisines. That’s important to me,” he said. “With my food, I try to create a cultural experience … I try to get people to understand that it’s not just about the food, but it’s about where that food comes from.”


So what does that mean for Hawai‘i?


It means there’s an opportunity for restaurants and entrepreneurs to tap into this growing segment of tourism, our state’s No. 1 economy.


“What tourists want is out of the ordinary, they want something special, they want that bespoke experience,” said Waxman, who recalled a recent trip to Hawai‘i Island, where he visited Parker Ranch and an abalone farm. “They don’t want the Cheesecake Factory.”


The challenge is, though, getting tourists to venture out of Waikīkī and explore other neighborhoods for more authentic cuisine.


“The Cheesecake Factory is successful because of its location [on Kalākaua Avenue] and brand recognition,” King said. “It’s all about research and education. When people first come to Hawai‘i, they don’t know these [other, more local] places. All they want to do is eat in Waikīkī.”


It’s a good reminder to us: We have some of the most interesting, sought-after food right in own neighborhoods. So get out there and explore!