Promising cruelty-free travel in an increasingly cruel world, vegan tourism makes a strong play
Where once veganism existed on the fringe of society, sustaining the kind of people you could pick out of a crowd, veganism has made a rapid rise to respectability — whatever that is. Ditching animal products has become part of the mainstream food scene, and though some may consider it simply a trend, the way things are going, it’s increasingly likely that it will become a prominent worldview. And the travel industry is taking notice.
Last month Intrepid Travel became the first major tour operator to offer vegan food adventures, where itineraries are structured around exploring plant-based offerings in India, Thailand, and even Italy. Plenty of tour companies actively accommodate various dietary restrictions and preferences, but this new wave of trips take it to the next level by showcasing exclusively vegan local food.
Vegan-oriented trips aren’t a new concept. VegVoyages, has been around since 2004 taking guests throughout Asia on trips devoid of any kind of animal exploitation, but their audience would be considered niche, compared with Intrepid which markets to a wide range of travelers.
If the addition of vegan tours wasn’t proof that veganism is popular enough to make this kind of business decision, a quick look at the statistics of Western diets makes it obvious that this specialty has a future.
In only three years, vegan diets in the United States rose in popularity by 600 percent. In the United Kingdom that number is an impressively high 350 percent. Even Walmart is stocking their shelves with more plant-based options, and America’s 800-pound grocer is hardly a bastion of progressive leadership. The confluence of increased awareness about issues like climate change and factory farming, more availability of tasty ingredients and recipes, and yes, probably a healthy dose of trendiness, has contributed to this accelerating shift to plant-based eating.
“The vegan movement continues to grow, with millennials especially being more interested in a vegan lifestyle and vegan tourism,” explained Intrepid Travel’s Chief Purpose Officer, Leigh Barnes, in an email interview. And with growing interest in veganism comes deeper visibility into travel destinations. “We always want to provide more choices for people to get out and see the world, and by launching these tours we’re aiming to provide an easy way for people who adhere to this lifestyle opportunities to explore other cultures.”
The data shows veganism is becoming a commonly-practiced lifestyle, so it shouldn’t matter whether vegan tours are capitalizing on a trend. “As long as the experience is positive, tasty and ethically satisfying, then the concept will grow beyond the current trend it may be today, to become a more permanent theme in travel,” shared prominent vegan and animal rights writer Jessica Scott-Reid in an interview with Salon.
Scott-Reid said there is a certain satisfaction that comes with practicing this kind of ethical travel, attractive to vegans and non-vegans alike. “A vegan tour (assuming it goes beyond just plant-based food to incorporate vegan ethics in all activities as much as possible) could offer a chance to explore a space and culture without causing it harm: no death or exploitation of local animals, limited detriment to local environments, and perhaps greater wellness of travellers. What better way to experience and appreciate a foreign place and people than to show it such respect, right?”
Morality aside, traveling while vegan can create its share fair of obstacles. “Language barriers, cultural norms and other factors can make it hard for a traveler who is vegan to know if what they’re eating is actually vegan-friendly,” explained Neil Coletta, the Food Tour Brand Manager at Intrepid.
This is a sentiment echoed by Scott-Reid, who would readily take one of these tours, because of “the ease of use: not having to worry about every meal or the ethics of planned activities.” She added that, “the prospect of meeting like-minded people would also be compelling, [and] I would also want to show my financial support to such tours to help grow the demand.”
But what is it actually like to be on a vegan food tour? Animal exploitation goes well beyond what we eat, from the use of leather to for-profit animal “sanctuaries,” but recognizing the signs of what crosses the line can be tricky. In Intrepid’s case, they assert that they rely on an existing network to vet potential vendors and partners. “We have local teams on the ground in each region we run trips that have insider knowledge of each destination. For these trips, we looked for suppliers with the same values and outlook on responsible travel, sustainability, and ethical treatment of animals that Intrepid Travel shares,” Coletta explained, adding that more than just cursory research has taken place when assembling these vegan itineraries.
Clearly, confirmation of this claim is something travelers should look for when selecting a vegan tour provider.
Intrepid Travel tour leader Chetan Jha, who recently ran the first pilot trip in India. Jha’s impression of what a vegan tour offers that regular food tours miss is in line with Scott-Reid’s thoughts on the best way to explore a new-to-you place. He remarked that, “a vegan food tour encompasses a whole gamut of eclectic vegan delicacies, both modern and traditional, and in my opinion, is the most spiritual and nutritious way of eating. These tours offer a healthy, holistic and ecologically sustainable way of traveling.”
The vegan influencers invited to participate on the pilot tour, “thoroughly enjoyed themselves,” Jha recalled. India is known for its vegetarianism, but dairy from cows is a big part of the local diet, so veganism is as new to India as it is anywhere else. Jha packed soy milk with him, which, “allowed us to try a vegan chai drink. It was a hit with the group, especially when I had them try it at a roadside Chai-wallah in one of the hidden roads of Old Delhi.” Chai is an integral part of India’s food identity, so being able to partake without sacrificing vegan values is something an omnivore tour might not think to do.
Food can be a means of literally experiencing the flavor of a place, but what’s available and how it’s prepared can speak even more deeply about the destination serving it. Jha shared that by choosing to explore India’s through its vegan side, travelers will see that, “India is not just a compassionate country in its traditions, but also in the pragmatic aspects of life. India has an enormous vegetarian population, which has allowed veganism to be more easily accommodated.”
Vegan tours may still be in their infancy, but given the expanding practice of living a plant-based lifestyle, more major tour operators will be adding this way of touring destinations to their offerings. Scott-Reid even sees this as a model for how the majority of trips can be taken: “Exploring a place through their local edible fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and fungi, prepared with local culinary techniques, and without harming local animals or environments — that’s how we should all travel!”