1 December 2021

Sarawak as a potential gastronomy tourism destination

by Dr. Jee Teck Weng

Gastronomy (also known as culinary) is an art form related to the experience of preparing and consuming food and beverages. From a tourism perspective, gastronomy experiences provide tourists and visitors alike different forms of attractions that are often associated with (or sometimes multiple) cultures and destinations. Gastronomy or culinary tourism is not alien to visitors who visited Sarawak, and Malaysia in general, as many tourists often associate their travel with the food and culture which are tied to a particular destination. Tourism and gastronomic products form a strong symbiotic relationship among visitors to Sarawak. For example, tourists visiting Kuching often associate their travel experience with searching for and consuming Sarawak laksa or the numerous delicious kolo mee the city had to offer.

Furthermore, gastronomy tourism is not confined to the visitors’ experiences and the activities that are involved in preparing and consuming this food and beverages. It is also often related to different festivals and events happening at these destinations. In Kuching, the Kuching Festival (usually held each year in August) has a food fair as its main attraction where distinct types of local and international cuisine and delicacies are sold and consumed. Since it was first held, with the exception of  2020 and 2021, a massive crowd from far and near have throng Kuching Festival. This is evident that gastronomic tourism plays a vital role in marketing some of Sarawak’s best tourist destinations.

The recent announcement by Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture Sarawak, Dato Sri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah on Kuching City being recognised as UNESCO’s Creative City of Gastronomy, had created challenges for food and beverages operators in terms of business expansion and branding. To mitigate such challenges, food and beverages operators can observe the selection and implementation of gastronomic products and related activities and programs by more established competitors. In return, these should guide them, as well as gastronomic product operators towards better implementation of gastronomy tourism that could draw visitors to the state, and to their business. 

However, it should also be noted that not all food and beverages operators and products operators are effective in offering the best gastronomic products and experiences for their businesses. Likewise, not all gastronomy and culinary tourism-related products and experiences are equally preferred by tourists and visitors at large.

Offering and preserving Sarawak’s unique cuisine

While Kuching city, and Sarawak in general, has been regarded as a gastronomic paradise, the various type of gastronomic products made by the different races and ethnicities might not be favoured by certain types of tourists and visitors.

Kuching city is home to a unique society made up of various local ethnicities such as the Bidayuh and Ibans, followed by the Malays, Chinese and other races. Such unique diversity and representation of multi-racial and multi-cultural society, form a collection of unique gastronomic products with different preparation styles, ingredients used, and consumption. For some races and ethnic groups such as the Sarawak natives and the Chinese, the preparation and uses of non-Halal ingredients are common in their day-to-day food preparation. For Muslim visitors, this limits their choices and availability to try Sarawak’s gastronomic products.

Hence non-Muslim food and beverages operators and businesses must ensure that the gastronomic products they prepare are not only halal but also emblems the unique cultural and heritage conservation related to the food and beverages of a particular destination and culture.  

Sarawak Gastronomic Experience and Travelling 

It is common knowledge that some of Sarawak’s best gastronomic cuisine, such as umai, the raw fish salad from Mukah, or nuba laya (mashed rice wrapped in leaves) from the Bario Highlands, are not easily found in major towns. Even when there is a sizeable number of food and beverage operators in these towns claiming to have the best cuisine brought from their home town, the best gastronomic experience is still to experience these cuisines at its place of origin.

Oftentimes the traveling experiences associated with the pursuit of local and authentic cuisine provides the best gastronomic experiences too. Not only can these visitors try the cuisines from these distinct locations, but they can also experience the distinct cultures and heritage along the way. 

So, to address the needs of different stakeholders on tourism, hospitality, and destination marketing-related research and development, Swinburne Sarawak’s Business and Social Innovation Centre offers a wide range of consultation, training, and research-related services on this matter. For more information on how our Business and Social Innovation Centre can help advance your business initiatives, readers are welcome to contact the writer.

Dr. Jee Teck Weng is a senior lecturer from the Faculty of Business, Design, and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at tjee@swinburne.edu.my