Tour operators are used to accommodating special requests from travelers, particularly when it comes to food. But instead of making vegan and vegetarian travelers feel disconnected from a group, some operators such as Intrepid Travel are designing entire tours for these travelers as veganism and vegetarianism trend worldwide.
Localizing the trend has been critical to building the infrastructure for Intrepid to launch its vegan tours in Italy, India, and Thailand which roll out in 2019.
“We’re making sure our suppliers have the same ethos as we do,” said Darshika Jones, regional director of North America for Intrepid Travel. “We’re not necessarily flying in experts from somewhere else to identify things, we’re doing it locally. Our local force is very aligned with our values but then they have to source supplies to execute.”
Vegan and vegetarian food tours remain a niche for small tour operators specializing in these diets, and Intrepid is one of the first major operators to offer multi-day vegan tours. Some destinations in the United States and Europe are becoming vegan-friendly, as veganism remains taboo in other regions. Many restaurants either don’t want or know how to accommodate vegan diets, or they’re located in regions where there isn’t a large vegan population.
From a business perspective, Jones said it takes more focus to build a tours product with fewer itineraries like the vegan tours. “Rather than finding places with emerging vegan approaches, we knew [Italy, India, and Thailand] were culinary destinations and veganism is growing in general. But we don’t see [veganism] as a trend, we see it as a lifestyle that people are adopting.”
Intrepid runs 30 food tours and overall food tour bookings have grown 30 percent year-over-year for North American travelers. The first departures for all three vegan tours are sold out. Intrepid ran a pilot tour to India in May and feedback was mostly positive, said Jones.
The vegan tours will be eight-day tours, ideal for the North American traveler, said Jones. “Two India tours are fully booked and we’re doing a third tour now,” she said. “The India tour goes behind the scenes, beyond masala sauces. In Italy, the tour includes a dinner in Venice’s first vegan restaurant and you stay two nights in an all-vegan villa in Tuscany.”
Jones said vegan travelers accept that iconic institutions they’ve heard about might not make the itinerary. That just comes with the territory. “It’s a very vegan experience because it’s your choice,” she said. “In Thailand, you’ll have a palm sugar demonstration and it’s quite unique to Thailand. You have a market tour and cooking class just as vegan, you wouldn’t get to experience that otherwise.”
Portland, Oregon, has about 40 restaurants such as Farm Spirit and Tusk that either exclusively serve vegan food or include vegan options on the menu. The destination has established itself as an inviting city for vegans and vegetarians, but vegan food tours have yet to materialize.
“I’m surprised that we don’t have any vegan food tours at this point,” said Stephanie Selk, a spokesperson for Travel Portland, the city’s tourism board, which also includes vegan guides on its website. “This is probably because most of the food tours that we have are focused on neighborhoods.”
While estimates vary, about six percent (nearly 20 million) Americans identified as a vegan in 2017, a 600 percent increase in the past three years. Countries such as Australia, Canada, China, Portugal, and the United Kingdom also have substantial vegan populations, and major athletes such as Venus Williams and Tom Brady have embraced vegan diets.
Food shouldn’t be a barrier to travel and many vegan travelers are increasingly finding a warm welcome. Tour operators are studying vegan tours and weighing the risks, but the real reward for those getting an early start is building relationships with restaurants that often take years to bear fruit.