By Dr. Peter Tarlow

The northern hemisphere’s long summer months are a time to relax and enjoy the great outdoors.  When it comes to food preparation and good food safety habits, however, being too relaxed can destroy a vacation or even terminate in hospitalization. Although no one has recently connected food safety to criminal acts or acts of terrorism, this has occurred in the past.  As we learned during the Covid-19 pandemic health is an important part of tourism security. Likewise, food safety must be an essential component of a sustainable tourism industry. We only have to review some of the problems that the cruise industry has experienced in the past to know that the quality of our food and water, and the way we safeguard it, are essential elements of successful tourism and travel.

The issue of food safety is especially important during the summer months when travel is at its peak many people tend to hold informal picnics, barbecues and/or beach parties.  Millions of people around the world associate these hot weather informal summer gatherings with their vacation experience or with good and healthy fun.  It takes, however, only one instance of spoiled food or inadvertent food poisoning to ruin a person’s vacation or a locale’s reputation.

Food impacts our travel and vacation experience, and it has the ability to make our visitors either happy or angry.  For example, we might hypothesize that one of the many reasons that air travel is now often called “flightmeres” is among other reasons the poor quality (or absence of) airline meals.  In the post-Covid world of tourism, travelers have also had to face inflated food prices and these high prices impact not restaurant costs but the total cost of a summer vacation.  Overpriced food not only raises the total cost of a summer vacation but impacts the way that visitors view the locale and their desire to return to that location. When we combine expensive food with an issue of food safety or hygiene then no amount of marketing, at least in the short term, can repair a tourism locale’s overall reputation.

To help you think about the impact of food on your section of the tourism industry, please consider the following.

-Meet with restaurateurs regarding the safety of salad bars and buffets. The first act of food terrorism in modern history took place in the 1980s in the State of Oregon. Too many people in the tourism and travel industry have not begun to think through this potential problem.

– Work with local fairs and events. Most rural events and festivals serve food, yet rarely consider issues of risk management.  In most cases, the food problems that take place at a festival can be avoided with some extra planning and a bit of caution.  Tourism professionals need o ask themselves if the event/festival manager has taken a course in food safety, how much attention has been paid to risk management issues, and what policies and procedures would go into effect in the event of a problem.

-Work with local health boards.  The tourism industry can be destroyed by the public’s perception that eating there is unsafe.  Currently, food trucks are very popular around the world.  Be sure that these trucks meet international food safety standards.  Check to see that drinking water and drinking fountains are safe. For example, several Latin American nations suffer from the fact that the public believes that they do not offer clean drinking water, wholesome food products, or that there is a general lack of sanitation. Whenever you see a health violation, report it to both the owner and to the proper authorities. Remember it takes very little to destroy a tourism industry.

-If you are a tourism officer, a hotel concierge, or a give visitors advice as to where to eat, be up-to-date.  Restaurants often come and go at a rapid rate and change of ownership is common in the restaurant business. Be accurate and up-to-date with your information. Be able to advise people not only by their likes but also by price range.

-Create multi-lingual menus. In places where there are visitors from many places, create multi-language menus. If there are no translators around, speak with your local community college or high school foreign language teachers.

-Train waiters and waitresses to be culturally and medically sensitive. If a person asks for no pork, do not bring a salad with bacon bits.  Teach your staff never to state: “It is just a little bit”.  Waiters and waitresses should be familiar with the content of menus and if that is impossible, then train them to ask rather than create an answer.  In a world with cultural, religious, health, and allergic restrictions, such a policy is essential.

– Be aware of medical issues and make sure that all food service people are healthy.  For example, if a visitor is allergic to peanuts then be sure to inform a patron that peanut oil was used in the preparation of a particular food item. In the same manner, be careful of shellfish for those who are allergic and never challenge a patron who states that s/he cannot eat a particular food.  Also, many food servers are afraid of losing a day’s wages if they are sick. Provide enough sick days so that a cook or waiters/waitresses do not handle food when sick.

-Educate tourism professionals on what is and what is not available. The public often seeks places that are out of the way or unique. Train personnel to steer people who desire such eating options to these types of places. Often, out-of-the-way restaurants have special schedules and are hard to find. These moments are customer service moments. Taking the time to call for the visitor, giving directions or helping the person in some other special way, will become part of the dining experience.

-Emphasize your community’s special foods or dishes. Your community or attraction may not be Paris, New Orleans, or New York, but so what? To make a food impact, all you have to do is to develop one local dish and then get it publicized. In a like manner, ambiance can add a great deal to the dining experience.  In reality, the type of ambience or décor is less important than the fact that it meets the public’s expectations.  For example, several lower New York City Lower East Side restaurants have created an image of brashness bordering on rudeness that seems to fit expectations and has become its own sort of tourist attraction. The public will do the rest.

-From the perspective of tourism, the age of the rapid franchise might have hit its hay day. Tourism is about new experiences, and too many fast-food restaurants have not found a way to mix efficiency with local cuisine.  Many of them have not only cut back on service personnel and also present a less hygienic look. Travelers simply do not want to eat what they can have at home. To add to this problem, too many fast-food restaurants are simply less and less efficient. As the fast-food industry tried to expand its menu, it lost its most precious resource: time savings.  To lessen this problem, work with your fast-food outlets. Help them to theme their restaurants, to drop specific items from the menu and to add others.

-Remember the last and first impressions of a locale are almost always the most important. What is true of landscaping is also true of “urbanscaping” and “restaurantscaping”.  The types of food that are offered to incoming and departing visitors help to set the entire trip’s mindset. These then are the establishments that ought to receive the tourism and travel industry’s top culinary priority.