Real people and authentic experiences: Trends in Australian Agritourism

Agritourism is any activity where agriculture and tourism intersect. A long established tradition in Italy, where Tuscan agriturismos allow visitors to experience real people and authentic food as they explore the region, agritourism is emerging as a powerful driver for Australia’s rural and regional economies. Sparrowly Group's Jennifer Richards has rounded up the key trends in agritourism...

Once thought of as just farm stays and winery visits, agritourism is now understood to incorporate many other types of activities. From farm gate sales to long table lunches, agritourism represents so many experiences (and contributes so significantly to regional communities) that it can no longer be considered niche interest. Here’s what you need to know about how the Australian agri-tourism scene is developing:

 

The economic potential is significant

There can be no doubt that agritourism in Australia is growing. Although Tourism Australia has only just started collecting specific information on agri-tourism, we know that between 2010-11 and 2015-16 domestic tourists who visited a farm on their trip increased by 9% per annum on average (11% for international visitors). There was also a similar increase for visits to wineries. The fact that income generated from agritourism crosses many industries (like agriculture, food, recreation, accommodation) means it’s difficult to estimate the total income growth from agritourism in recent years, but one Deloitte estimate suggests that visitors participating in agritourism in 2015-16 spent $9.4 billion dollars across their total trip.

 

It’s not just wineries anymore

The viticulture industry is impressively well-practiced at agritourism. Bringing visitors onto a winery, wowing them with a cellar door experience and completing the offer with food and accommodation is a regular practice and has allowed the wine tourism industry to flourish. They set an impressive standard. However, there are now a wealth of other experiences that make up agritourism including:

 

Food is the name of the game

Tourists and visitors seeking out authentic food experiences has been a big driver for the growth in agritourism in recent years. Increasingly, people are interested in the chasing down the provenance of the produce they consume. Although food tourism is an integral part of agri-tourism - they are not necessarily one and the same. For instance, travelling across the city to chase down the most authentically made gelato you’ve ever tasted might be a great food tourism experience, but it has nothing to do with agriculture. Similarly, a farmstay on a working alpaca farm provides a great insight into the work of fibre farmers - but isn’t about a food experience.

So it’s important not to use the terms food tourism and agritourism interchangeably - but to acknowledge the great overlap and use them to bolster each other. Authentic, local food experiences, meeting producers and seeing how food and beverages are made and grown are all strong motivators for agritourists, and experiences that deliver on this have real power to educate people about food and agriculture.

 

Our regions can reap the rewards of agritourism

In 2015-21016, people who engaged in agritourism spent a total of $9.4 billion during their travels. In this way, people with an interest in agritourism can make a huge contribution to regional economies. This presents a big opportunity for regional and rural communities who have suffered in recent years from a decline in numbers, jobs and investment. The challenge, however, is for regions to effectively market themselves to visitors to capture that potential spend - as well as make sure they backup their marketing messages with the infrastructure and education that both businesses and visitors need to co-create amazing experiences for visitors. Some Australian regions doing this well include:

  • Margaret River Region - famous for food and wine tourism, the South West of Australia attracts the highest number of agritourists annually.

  • The NSW North Coast has the highest number of farm and farmgate visits

  • Tasmania has the highest number of distillery and brewery visits. (Tasmania’s recent draft agritourism strategy is available here).

 

It’s incredibly important for farmers

Agritourism can be a path back to profitability for small producers who have suffered in the supermarket-dominated central market system. Farmers’ markets and farm visits offer these producers the opportunity to sell directly to the public and capture the margin that might otherwise be taken out by a wholesaler and retailer. Agritourism can also help facilitate diversification, value adding and vertical integration within enterprises and thereby offer even further opportunities. This has been the case for several small producers on the outskirts of Sydney who converted to pick-your-own farms to offer self-picking and farm tour experiences (and farm gate sales) and stay viable through agritourism. Their successful collaboration under the banner Hawkesbury Harvest (now Harvest Trails and Markets) offers a template for other regions to follow.

Whether it is chatting at a farmers market stall, engaging over a longer period on a farmstay or having an educational session about regional cuisine, producers and consumers can both benefit from educational exchange of agritourism. Consumers can come to understand how their food is grown and the challenges involved in growing it which is important for their literacy around food systems - and may in fact encourage different purchasing behaviour. Producers can gain deeper insight into what the market wants and may be encouraged to try different, more sustainable practices as consumers bring up their desire for more chemical-free produce.

 

But agritourism presents particular challenges

Agri-tourism is not as simple as throwing the farm gates wide open to the public. It requires a shift in mindset for an operator to start thinking of themselves as a tourism enterprise. As such, they must adopt different skills, adhere to different regulations and build new infrastructure as the focus of their business shifts. On farm behaviour of tourists can also present risks to farmers if visitors don’t properly respect infrastructure, adhere to biosecurity protocols or inadvertently damage crops by walking or picking in the wrong place.

Not every farmer has the capacity, capability or motivation to turn their operation into an agritourism business - even if there are gains to be made by doing so - and sometimes the successful enterprises are ones that have agritourism built into them from the very beginning. Training programs and support, like the substantial programs provided in California, need to address the specific needs of agritourism operators to ensure the success of the sector.

 

It’s time for Australian agritourism to shine

Agritourism presents a clear opportunity for regions around Australia. However, it’s not simply a matter of converting farm businesses into tourism operations. To embrace the potential of agritourism we need to address infrastructure gaps that present barriers to farm enterprises who want to explore the opportunity that agritourism offers. To be successful, any regional, state or national agritourism strategy must holistically address the challenges faced by rural and regional communities. This includes lack of fast and reliable internet, improvements to road infrastructure and planning considerations, as well as educating and supporting both producers and regional communities on the role and rewards of the visitor economy.

About the author:

Jennifer Richards is a sustainability advisor and copywriter who has written for a number of premium food and agricultural organisations including Harvest Trails and Markets, Australian Macadamias, the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and Landcare Australia. She is a regular contributor to ABC Radio Sydney on food and agritourism in the Sydney basin. She holds a Masters in Sustainability from Sydney University.