By Yang Zhang
LANSING – Miles of coastline, beautiful beaches and spectacular sand dunes. But traveling in Michigan offers more than that.
The state’s wines and beers, fresh fruits, fish and other local flavors are attracting visitors as well.
“Culinary tourism is an exciting new area of economic development for Michigan,” said Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Council.
On Jan. 10, a diverse range of businesses and organizations will celebrate their culinary assets and share ideas to promote culinary tourism at a statewide conference.
Jones said other states promote their culinary assets more aggressively than Michigan, such as Oregon, New York and California.
Culinary tourism includes cooking classes, foodie tours, events and festivals.
The Michigan Culinary Tourism Alliance is one initiative boosting local industry.
Dave Lorenz, manager of public and industry relations at Travel Michigan, said quality food is part of the traveling experiences people look for.
Michigan’s diverse agriculture, hunting and fishing provide fresh foods, which creates this experience, Lorenz said. His office is the state’s official tourism promotion agency.
For example, Culinary Escapes, a Detroit-based company, offers walking tours to restaurants, markets and local food purveyors in downtown Birmingham, Detroit and Royal Oak from April through October.
Learn Great Foods in Petoskey offers themed retreats, tours and cooking classes. One is Maple Madness Weekend on the Parsons Centennial Farm in Charlevoix, where participants learn how to make maple syrup.
Karel Bush, promotion specialist at Grape and Wine Council, said Michigan’s 75 wineries also are travel destinations where people enjoy lush green valleys and savor award-winning wines.
Bush said there are wine routes along the coasts, such as the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, the Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula and the Southeast Michigan Pioneer Wine. Another is the Sunrise Side Wine and Hops Trail along Lake Huron.
Experts said great dining and learning experiences attract more tourists and extend their travel time in the communities.
Lorenz said: “They go out there and spend money that help retain and build jobs.”
Jones said culinary tourism benefits the whole state, particularly areas with major visitor attractions.
Diane Dakins, assistant director of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, said the number of tourists in her region has increased because of the development of food-related businesses.
The bureau serves Petoskey, Harbor Springs and Boyne City, which are well-known for wines, whitefish and morel mushrooms.
For example, people pick mushrooms in the woods and learn how to cook them, Dakins said.
“Farms and farmers’ markets create jobs and also are a stop for tourists,” Dakins said.
Cooking classes in restaurants and hotels have attracted many customers, Lorenz said. For example, Zazios in Kalamazoo has a Chefs Table, where customers learn from a chef how to make food and then eat it.
Andy Deloney, vice president of public affairs at the Michigan Restaurant Association said developing culinary tourism is particularly important to the hospitality industry.
Deloney said many people have a misconception that they must go to New York, San Francisco or Chicago for both great travel and dinning experiences.
“In Michigan we have lots of fantastic restaurants, too,” he said.
Deloney said the conference will increase awareness of Michigan’s dining destinations and build connections among businesses.
The Creating Michigan Culinary Destinations conference in East Lansing is being organized by the Culinary Tourism Alliance in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Travel Michigan and the Restaurant Association.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.