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Tourism is the winner

20 July 2014
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“Perhaps the region’s hospitality industry needed global endorsement about the islands’ cuisine to take it more seriously.

Now that it has been garnered in good measure, they should take to it forthwith”.

It is rare that positive news from the Pacific Islands region makes it to the world stage. More often than not, it is for all the alarming reasons that the islands find themselves making global headlines.

In most cases it is issues like climate change, the geopolitical machinations of the big boys of the planet in our neck of the woods and stories like the massive islands of floating plastic traversing the world’s largest ocean, the drying up of fish stocks and dastardly tales of whaling that find their way into the world media.

So, positive stories from the Pacific that catch the world’s notoriously ephemeral attention spans must be celebrated around the region with gusto and pride. And Pacific Islanders and national governments must strive all the more to encourage more positive stories from our islands, villages and people.

One such big story broke last month in the People’s Republic of China. It’s an incredibly big positive story for the Pacific, the kind of which rarely breaks in the region. A new book on the cuisine of Samoa and Polynesia and an associated television show won one of the most coveted of awards. ‘Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes from the Heart of Polynesia’ and its associated television cooking show, Real Pasifik won the Gourmand Award for Best TV Chef Cookbook In The World 2013.

The Gourmand Award is considered the Oscars of cookbooks. It comes from the reputed house of Cointreau, the family that brought to the world the famous Cointreau liqueur, as well as the Cognacs Frapin and Rémy Martin. The global award was founded in 1995.

The Mea’ai Samoa book written by the Pacific’s celebrated chef Robert Oliver beat 187 countries that participated in the competition. Of the 94 that were shortlisted, 61 made it to the top three. Finalists were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. This is no mean achievement by any standards.

For a small island nation and a remote region’s cuisine to grab the attention of the world, beating long established cuisines is incredibly big news for all Pacific Islanders. And what is all the more rewarding is that this is not the first but the second time that Pacific Island cuisine has been thus rewarded. The first time was in Paris for Mr Oliver’s first book, Me’a Kai, three years ago. That award spawned a worldwide interest in Pacific Island cuisine and took Pacific dishes into the kitchens of the most celebrated restaurants the world over.

Winning the award a second time in such a short period of time only means there is something incredibly special about Pacific Island cuisine.

Its attributes are not far to seek: Natural ingredients, simplicity of preparation and cooking processes and a range of clean, subtle flavours directly reminiscent of the origins of the ingredients – the ocean and the pristine and fertile land – are but a winning combination. Not to mention the ancient recipes that have preserved for centuries.

There is an old saying that goes, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” In the modern world, we may as well tweak it to “The way to the world’s heart is through its palate.” The winning of the award, while a matter of pride for the whole of the Pacific, is a tremendous opportunity that can be leveraged in many ways as well. The Pacific should not forego the potential benefit it can bring to its people. How it is done is a matter of vision, imagination, entrepreneurship and political will.

The most significant beneficiary of the award can well be the region’s biggest revenue earner – tourism. Cuisines are one of the most prominent draw cards for tourist destinations. As well as the attraction of a place, tourism promoters equally focus on accommodations and food and drink. The iconic drink ‘Singapore Sling’ and the famous ‘Waldorf Salad’ are shining examples of the ‘cuisine as attraction’ phenomenon at work.

While Pacific Island tourists have tended to concentrate on the first two, that is the allure of destinations and the quality of accommodations, cuisine has not been a strong selling point for Pacific destinations. They have hitherto all but neglected to focus on the exotic range of food and drink in their marketing spiels.

Besides, Pacific destinations have tended to concentrate more on western fare and consistently downplayed their own exquisite cuisines, which are relegated to mere sideshows on restaurant menus. Perhaps the region’s hospitality industry needed global endorsement about the islands’ cuisine to take it more seriously. Now that it has been garnered in good measure, they should take to it forthwith.

Chef and author Robert Oliver has taken it upon himself, to promote Pacific Island cuisine wherever he goes. He is a one man ambassador of the islands’ delectable cuisine.

He has gone to great lengths to visit distant and remote places, research and document ingredients, learn cooking styles and listen to people’s stories – all of which make the whole experience of partaking food incredibly richer.

It is indeed a shame that the collective South Pacific tourism industry has failed to appreciate his efforts and the recognition he has brought to the region’s unique cuisine in any substantial way. It is high time the big forces of Pacific tourism put their heads together to leverage all this priceless recognition that has come the way of the region’s cuisine in recent years – the latest and biggest one of them all, just last month.

Pacific tourism has always relied on location, isolation, pristine purity and the allure of sea, sand and surf to attract tourists. Only recently has it added concepts like sports tourism, adventure tourism and eco tourism. It is now about time they added the islands’ globally acclaimed cuisine to their offerings.

The international buzz around Pacific cuisine will undoubtedly whet people’s appetites for travel as well. The worst thing would be for them to read the book, take the long and expensive journey and then find that none of the food they read about in the book is available to eat and drink in any of the resorts.

Island Business Magazine

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