Everybody eats: tourism, agriculture, culture and cuisine in the South Pacific

Tourism development is only one of several factors affecting biodiversity, local food production systems and cuisine in the South Pacific; however, its impact should not be underestimated in contributing to socio-economic (livelihoods) and socio-ecological changes for Pacific communities. Tourists’ food preferences have also played a significant role.

In 2017, there were 2,137,538 international tourist arrivals to the South Pacific (South Pacific Tourism Organisation [SPTO], 2018). In global terms, this represents less than 1% of the world’s international tourist arrivals, nonetheless this small number is enough for tourism to be the mainstay of the region’s economy. For many small SIDS, tourism is one of the only (if not the only) economic sectors with sustainable growth. The SIDS of the South Pacific offer a stereotypical tropical island tourist idyll. However, some of the very attributes that make them popular tourism destinations pose challenges to food production. For the most part in the Pacific, the main purpose of agriculture is for subsistence and, to a lesser extent, trade in domestic and international markets (Barnett, 2010; Milne et al., 2017). The high cost of agricultural production, the cumbersome and perishable nature of agricultural goods along with limited technology, access to customary land, poor logistical links and high transportation costs to external markets, pose significant barriers to export-led agricultural development in the region and make it difficult for Pacific SIDS to compete and trade on a global scale (Chen et al., 2014; Duncan and Nakagawa, 2006; Milne et al., 2017; Pye-Snrith, 2017).

Potentially, tourism can address some of these barriers by providing a proximate ‘export’ market for agricultural products in the Pacific. However, variable product quality and consistency, poor infrastructure, lack of training, complex supply chains and tourist food preferences (Berno, 2011) mean that it is often easier to offer tourists an international menu that relies on imported products - so much so that some South Pacific resorts’ menus comprise up to 90% imported goods (Oliver and Вето, 2016), although there are notable exceptions. For the most part, when Pacific dishes are offered in touristic settings, they are often a parody of local cuisine presented at themed island-nights (the ‘tikification’ of Pacific cuisine, Berno, 2017a: 111; or international dishes with a ‘Pacific flavour’, Вето et ah, 2016). Even in 1946, Victor Bergeron recognised this when he observed,

Whenever commerce and shipping have taken over island cities and ports, and the further our Caucasian civilization spreads the less you see of true native life. The beloved tourist, with his pocket of loose change, however, has helped to bitch up the native way of life as much as anything else.

Bergeron, 1946: 135

Further compounding tourism food-related issues in the South Pacific is the lack of a clear ‘culinary identity’ in the region. As with many tropical island locations, when one thinks of the South Pacific it is inevitably a sun, sea, sand image that comes to mind, rather than the cuisine (Berno, 2011; Pratt, 2013). Indeed, in defence of the ‘Americanisation’ of the Pacific foods on his menus, Victor Bergeron, the founder of the famous, Polynesian-themed Trader Vic’s restaurant chain, said, ‘The real, native South Seas food is lousy. You can’t eat it’ (cited in Reddinger, 2010: 208).

Recent research by Gibson and Berno (2019) found that tourists in Fiji had a low familiarity with Pacific cuisine. When asked to name Fijian dishes, the majority of tourists surveyed suggested items such as ‘fruits’, ‘seafood’ and ‘coconuts’ — products that are ubiquitous to tropical SIDS worldwide and are not unique to the South Pacific or Fiji. Berno has referred to this phenomenon as the ‘same-same zone’ when describing the ubiquitous nature of ingredients that are found throughout the coastal tropical world (Berno, 2017d). Although these products are key components of Fijian cuisine, they are ingredients, not Fijian cuisine in and of themselves.

Culture and cuisine have a symbiotic relationship: culture can be represented in cuisine, and cuisine can be an expression of individual and collective cultural identity. With holiday-makers who prefer burgers, chips and pizzas (Laeis, 2019b; Вето and Gibson, in preparation) the deeper cultural meaning of cuisine is mostly absent from tourist menus in the South Pacific.

This lack of culinary identity was also reflected by Pratt (2013) who suggested that the island nations of the South Pacific are perceived as being ‘same-same’, meaning that they:

Share many of the same attributes indicating that there is a sameness to these destinations - something that has been reinforced over time [... all the Pacific islands] are perceived to have good weather, people known for their hospitality, and being a good place to relax.

2013: 607

In other words, imagery, including that of the cuisine, of South Pacific destinations has become strongly stereotyped in the minds of tourists (Вето et al., 2016). Cuisine, when it did feature as a motivation for travellers to visit the Pacific, was also subject to ‘same-same’ with only the food of the French territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia serving as a tourist motivator, but with French (not Polynesian) cuisine as the driver (Pratt, 2013). This lack of awareness of Pacific cuisine was a key driver behind Oliver, Вето and Ram’s publications Me’a Kai: The Food and Flavours of the South Pacific (2010) and Mea’ai Samoa: Recipes and Stories from the Fleart of Polynesia (2013). Similarly, the television programme Real Pasifik, inspired by Oliver et al.’s books and hosted by Robert Oliver, also sought to heighten awareness of Pacific cuisine as a salient attribute of the Pacific Islands’ tourism sectors1.

As discussed above, food, cuisine and culinary traditions are among the most foundational elements of culture (Вето, 2017b; Timothy and Ron, 2013). Significantly, Timothy and Ron (2013) suggested that cuisine, as a part of cultural heritage, is an important marker of social identity. They argue that traditional gastronomy, as part of the tourist experience, can empower communities, support them to achieve their goals for sustainability, and help them cope with tourism and achieve its potential in more responsible ways. Despite the significant impacts of colonisation, trade liberalisation and the broader influences of western lifestyle on food habits, local ingredients and traditional cuisine are still highly regarded in the Pacific, not only as a means for sustenance but as the foundation for meaningful exchanges and expressions of culture. Traditional dishes are still a part of everyday island life and can be found in private spaces and at almost all significant holidays and occasions (Вето, 2015). Despite several initiatives to increase local cuisine in tourism, and hence the use of locally grown products (see, for example Вето, 2017c; Oliver et al., 2010, 2013; Parkinson, 1989), Pacific cuisine is still mostly absent from tourists’ tables. When asked why this was the case, local chefs in Fiji explained their belief that the only acceptable food to present to tourists is Euro- pean-style cuisine (Laeis, 2019a, 2018). In essence, local chefs believed that their local cuisine was not good enough for the tourists.

The reasons for which Pacific chefs do not celebrate their cuisine through tourism are complex. In part, it is deeply rooted in the cultural and culinary changes discussed above. Another factor is the tourists, who have little familiarity with, or interest in, Pacific cuisines prefer a ubiquitous Western-style tourist menu instead. As a result, local chefs in the South Pacific have grown up in a tourism environment that does not appreciate their local cuisine. As Laeis (2019a) observed, ‘In essence, tourists do not come to [the Pacific] for its cuisine and local chefs are socialised in an environment that degrades their culinary heritage’. In the Pacific, however, what tourists choose to eat is a critical driver of agricultural production and a potential contributor to more sustainable food systems. As chef Robert Oliver (2013: np) stated, ‘In tourism-led economies [of the Pacific], the menus are the business plans of the nation’.

This idea that chefs are gatekeepers and that ‘where the cuisine goes, the agriculture will follow’ has been consolidated into a programme called ‘Chefs for Development’. This programme is a collective initiative coordinated by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation with the Inter- American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation, the Pacific Community (SPC), the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Women in Business Development Inc., fanners’ organisations, agribusinesses and chefs. Its aim is to promote stronger linkages across the agriculture—tourism value chain, and to enhance the contribution made by healthier, locally sourced food and agrifood products to tourism menus across SIDS in the Caribbean, South Pacific and Indian Ocean (Chefs for Development, n.d.).

In the touristic settings of the South Pacific, the subsequent impact of tourists’ food choices on agriculture is that the Western-centric tourist cuisine encounters a traditional agricultural sector that is largely unable to supply demand (Laeis, 2019a; Viet, 2007). The reliance on Western-style foods and imported food products in tourism have resulted in SIDS of the South Pacific developing agricultural agendas to match the requirements of tourists’ food preferences. This has had a range of social and environmental consequences (Berno, 2015; Laeis, 2019a). In essence, in tourism, local food has become a problem to be overcome, rather than an opportunity to revitalise and value cultural and ecological attributes. This is consistent with Harrison and Pratt (2015) who suggested that increasing the use of local food in the tourism industry of the South Pacific requires both cultural and structural change. Despite this somewhat pessimistic outlook, Fiji, the most visited of the countries in the South Pacific, provides an interesting example of how tourism can be used as a conduit to promote food biodiversity, local food systems and cuisine with a focus on one of the most important crops in the region — taro.

 
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