If there’s one way to truly understand a culture, it’s through eating its typical dishes. And, increasingly, governments are investing in their culinary reputation abroad to draw tourists in for the real thing.
A decade ago, Thai food was still a largely-untapped market in the United States—there were only about 5,500 restaurants across the country. Then the country started a government-funded gastro-diplomacy program. Thailand invested serious cash in Thai restaurants across the world.
After the program, tourist numbers to Thailand jumped and, a few years ago, almost one-third of tourists to Thailand cited cuisine as their main motivation for traveling to the country.
And South Korea took notice.
In 2008, the country’s president formed a coalition to better South Korea’s reputation abroad. The Presidential Council on National Branding formed with the aim to move South Korea up the international ranking of countries. South Korea spent $77 million, according to Priceonomics, to improve the country’s culinary reputation abroad. That included setting up more Korean restaurants, and focusing on the national dish: kimchi.
The Kimchi Institute, a real thing set up by the South Korean government, was born in 2009. It aimed to research the country’s signature spicy, pickled cabbage and prepare it for international exporting.
Researchers worked on fine-tuning kimchi for different marketplaces: The United States got a kimchi that’s less tangy; Japan got a kimchi that’s very sweet. The result was a very quick popularization of the dish.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a Korean taco truck was making headlines with two-hour waits for their spicy, fermented fusion foods. A group of young Koreans, sponsored by a Korean food company, traveled around the world as the Bibimbap Backpackers, promoting their favorite dish. Everything came together in a perfect culinary storm.
Tourist arrivals to Korea jumped 70 percent from 2009 to 2015—a feat which many attribute to the culinary influence abroad.
While gastro-diplomacy is still a very new area of study, its effects are undeniable: The way to a traveler’s heart is through their taste buds.
Now, other countries are following suit. Australia, Peru and Malaysia all have government-funded culinary outreach programs in hopes of increasing tourism.