The vegan tourist

There is tourism and then there is speciality tourism. The latter is increasingly growing in popularity around the world as travellers look to countries, agencies and itineraries that reflect their ethical and personal life choices. Veganism is one of these ethical and life choices. It is also not a passing fad. Research undertaken by Baum and Whiteman in New York found that plant-based food was the leading 2018 trend, Nestle predicted that plant-based foods are here to stay, while Just Eat’s survey revealed a 98% increase in healthy food orders.To put the final carrot on the vegan cake, the Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017 report found a 5% increase in US vegan consumers, from 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017.

The US and the UK are two of South Africa’s top tourism markets and both have seen extraordinary growth in vegan numbers. In the past three years in the US the increase hit 600%; in the UK it was 350%. To capture the attention of the market, the South African tourism professional should be looking to developing tours that cater for vegans and their ethical choices.

“One of the biggest trends we are seeing in the industry right now is in veganism and vegetarianism,” says Marcus Embden, chief executive of Timeless Africa Safaris. “Ethical foodies are looking for fine dining and exotic cuisine that matches their personal philosophies.”

Vegan tourism is about designing packages that suit the needs, preferences and ideologies of the vegan traveller. This includes food, of course, but it also should be catering for their ethical choices and the concept of the vegan movement as a whole. The vegan traveller ethos often extends far beyond just a plant-based diet. According to the Vegan Society, veganism is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”.

Taking a vegan group to a lodge with a vegan menu that also caters for canned hunting isn’t going to cut it.

“The vegan travel market is niche, but it is growing,” says Lisa Nel, general manager, Jumbari Family Safaris. “South African travel agencies that want to capitalise on this trend will need to book with knowledgeable tour operators who have done their research. We believe that veganism ties in with responsible travel ethics and with choosing properties that cater for a vegan diet.”

There is also a growing trend towards eco-sensitive lodges in South Africa, many boasting their own sustainable farms. There are farms in Bablyonstoren and Boschendal in the Cape Winelands that follow a farm-to-table philosophy, picking and serving fresh produce from the gardens each day. The official Cape Town Tourism website has dedicated sections for the vegan and vegetarian traveller, providing them with listings of restaurants and experiences that they can enjoy while adhering to their dietary and ethical choices. South African Tourism, in association with the South African Chefs Association, has recently launched A Guide to Vegetarian, Vegan and Jain Dining in South Africa — a comprehensive guide that is aimed at the hotel and the restaurant. The goal is to encourage the local industry to better cater for these preferences and life choices. But are these efforts making a dent in the industry and its offerings?

“The South African market is slow, but it is burgeoning,” says Marion Ellis, owner of Cape Insights. “Cape Town is a foodie destination and chefs are taking on the challenge with increasing enthusiasm. Certain establishments with conscious management are also making an effort to grow this niche market outside of the spa and retreat categories.”

In Cape Town, the vegan traveller can enjoy the Oranjezicht City Farm and the monthly Vegan Goods Market alongside eateries such as Raw & Roxy, Seven Colours at St George’s Mall, Scheckters Raw, the Honest Chocolate Café and Ragamuffin. The Planet Bar at The Mount Nelson even offers a vegan high tea, while eateries in Franschoek cater for the selective vegan palate. In Johannesburg, veganism isn’t quite as widespread, but there are some remarkable spaces that offer vegans incredible food in fabulous locations. These include Urbanologi, Vegeata and Fresh Earth, and Leafy Greens in Muldersdrift. Of course, the cities are the most likely spaces – for now – to have a wide spread of vegan offerings in various venues, but there is a need for lodges and more rural tourism destinations to pay attention and deliver the vegan goods.

“The hospitality industry needs to educate itself around veganism, as I believe many people don’t even know what it means,” says Antonia Krauss, editor of The Vegan Rainbow, one of South Africa’s top vegan travel blogs. “There is vegan training available for the tourism industry and staff should take advantage of it and invest in it. The reality is that vegan tours in South Africa are in high demand from both local and international visitors and this isn’t quite being met by the local tourism industry yet.”

It is up to the local market to sit up and pay attention; after all, veganism is an ethical lifestyle choice that’s steadily growing in global popularity. Nestle now offers a meat-free burger and walnut milk, Kelloggs offers a new vegan cereal, Gregg’s vegan sausage roll in the UK went viral, and even McDonald’s has launched a vegan-friendly happy meal. Vegans can now even enjoy Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream and South Africans have recently been given the opportunity to enjoy the rather famous Beyond Meat burger at both Jacksons and Leafy Greens.So how can the local industry capitalise on its growing awareness and tie this in to all that South Africa has to offer the vegan tourist?

There is a need for an association similar to SASSI that could be taken up by all establishments where the V endorsement becomes trusted. This will level the local playing fields and set standards, similar to the Platter Wine guide rating. ProVeg SA is already championing the Meat Free Mondays and SA Vegan Challenge Month, so why not add in a distinctive vegan category into awards such as Eat Out?

It’s a good point. The industry can use the growing trend to build a vibrant vegan travel ecosystem that will not only allow for tourist destinations to add value, but to bring in more business. It doesn’t take much to add vegan to the menu and to ensure that there is an ethical twist to the tourist experience.

“Teeming with wildlife and diverse ecosystems, South Africa’s focus on conservation ties into the vegan sentiment of caring for the environment,” concludes Nel. “Catering to all dietary requirements opens the doors to vegan travellers, and what better place to live out their ethos in a holistic manner than in South Africa. We now use vegan and cruelty-free products as gifts to all our clients and ensure that their dietary requirements are catered for.”