On the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi, tourists arrive for any number of reasons. They come for the infamous beach parties or to watch Muay Thai. A few will even volunteer to participate in the southeast Asian kickboxing tournaments. Many show up still chasing an old Leonardo DiCaprio movie shot here, others roll in hoping for nothing more than a few days of sun-soaked paradise and quiet.
No matter what brought them to the island in the first place, many of these vacationers found their way to the kitchen of Pum Wittelsheim. A classically trained chef with a mean curry and a knack for teaching other people how to make it. For years, Wittelsheim ran one of the most popular cooking classes on the island until its closure at the end of January.
Wittelsheim's class was part of a modern trend of personal experience travel. To an increasing degree, travelers aren't simply settling for a good meal and a nice view. They want to invest their trip with activities that help build a connection and sense of place. The result has been a boom in bookings for guides and lessons, heritage experiences and, among the most popular: Cooking classes, per a 2018 report by Trip Advisor:
Globally travelers are expanding their horizons, and several categories grew quickly in 2017. Historic and heritage experiences (such as a Charleston Harbor History Tour and a Tour of Historic Fenway Park) saw the most growth (+125% in bookings), and culinary is a clear trend: Cooking classes and food tours both appeared among the top five categories, each with 57% bookings' growth. By gross booking value, food tours saw the most growth in 2017. (Emphasis added.)
American travelers have flocked to cooking classes, with millennials leading the pack. It's not simply an excuse for having something to do. For travelers, whether on a weekend getaway or a round-the-world adventure, food is an essential sense of place. Visitors to the coast of Michigan want to eat at the Stray Dog café, a battered, rambling wharf town dive bar that tastes exactly like summers at the lake. In Paris they want to dine someplace with cloth napkins, cheese for dessert and long shadows around cobblestone streets.
An overwhelming majority of travelers have decided to make meals an important part of their vacations, with almost 80% saying that they've started building food-focused activities into their plans. Among millennials that number goes up to nearly 90%, and so for years greater numbers of travelers have been picking their destinations based on what they can eat and drink when they get there.
Today that trend has shifted further. Travelers don't just want to find great food, they want to learn how to make it. They want the experience of putting their hands in the dough and rolling out the pasta.
There has been an explosion of cooking classes around the world. From Carolina barbecue boot camps to Sherwood Forest biscuits, travelers are lining up to learn how to make the foods that they've come so far to eat. So much so that, according to TripAdvisor, a particular Spanish cooking class in Barcelona is one of the fastest-growing travel experiences on the market.
As with any trend, there are plenty of reasons for this, but an important one is simple: Most cooking classes are social, and millennial travelers are social in ways that their parents are not.
In a cooking class, students often work in groups, meeting strangers while chopping vegetables, browsing the marketplace and bouncing off each other in the (often small) kitchen. There's a lot of activity and plenty of chances to get to know fellow travelers.
This is a major selling point for the generation that has made the mid-30's backpacker a staple on many travel scenes, inventing "flashpacking" and the adult hostel in one fell swoop. Far from growing up and graduating into the Four Seasons suites of their parents, young adults on vacation want the same social opportunities they had when they were 20. Millennials want to meet people and make friends while having their adventures.
Cooking classes offer that. Travelers can get together in a fun, relaxed atmosphere, with the added bonus of creating a space to meet people other than strange encounters at the bar.
Food has become an incredibly important part of how people see the world and take their vacations. Travelers want to connect with a place through its food culture. Learning how to make that food helps take that to a more interesting, sophisticated level. Through cooking classes, travelers can learn about the ideas and flavors that come together to make the meals they've come so far to eat.
In great cooking classes, they can learn about the history of those flavors the culture that put them together.
They can even make some friends while they're at it.