Driving global gastro-tourism with UN executive director Natalia Bayona  

Driving global gastro-tourism with UN executive director Natalia Bayona  

In today’s global tourism landscape, gastronomy plays a pivotal role in attracting travelers and shaping destination experiences. Natalia Bayona, UN Tourism executive director, explores objectives of the UN Global Gastronomy Tourism Competition, encouraging Middle Eastern startups’ participation.

To what extent are gastronomy and tourism related?

The link between gastronomy and tourism is deeply rooted, with gastronomic tourism moving people worldwide. However, what we don’t often consider is the link between tourism and gastronomy with innovation. Moreover, innovating in gastronomy is key, and gastronomy acts as a catalyst for innovation within the tourism sector. This inspires destination managers, entrepreneurs and representatives to foster unique culinary offerings and revolutionary ideas.

This drive for innovation leads to sustainable food practices, products and services, crucial for industry productivity and market sustainability. Innovative tourism practices like culinary workshops, eco-friendly food trails and cultural exchanges exemplify this trend, enhancing tourists’ overall experience. Moreover, gastro is essential as a powerful motivator for tourist interaction and destination promotion. It brings together heritage preservation, cultural experiences and economic development in the tourism industry but most importantly, stimulates innovation. Therefore, these initiatives not only strengthen sustainability but also improve the global tourism landscape.

What are the objectives of the UN Global Gastronomy Tourism Competition?

With more than 400 applications received in the first three editions, UN Tourism actively seeks startups and businesses focused on technological solutions. These initiatives have a large positive impact on the local community and address challenges of sustainability and food waste management. Furthermore, the organization commits to supporting innovative startups, accelerating sustainable gastronomy tourism in alignment with the United Nations SDGs. Together with the Basque Culinary Center, winning entrepreneurs gain access to the GOe Digital Community’s Advanced Plan for six months.

This marks the start of the first digital community tailored for the comprehensive gastronomy sector. Additionally, they become part of the relevant edition of Culinary Action, on the Road, a groundbreaking roadshow-style competition for FoodTec startups. Furthermore, the winners will gain potential investment opportunities and personalized support, from UN Tourism partners.

We encourage gastronomic innovators to participate in the UN Tourism 4th Global Gastronomy Tourism Startup Competition. Moreover, we invite them not to miss out on this opportunity to succeed worldwide and make a change in the culinary industry.

Why would you encourage startups in the Middle East to participate?

Participating in the 4th Gastronomy Tourism Startup Competition offers Middle Eastern entrepreneurs a unique chance to showcase their businesses globally. Moreover, Middle Eastern culture is known for its outstanding culinary cuisines, practices and creative perspectives on gastronomy tourism. Furthermore, the region is globally recognized for its abundant culinary traditions and celebrated for its diversity and pioneering gastronomic techniques.

The UN Tourism empowers local startups, supporting them in addressing environmental, social and economic challenges and promoting sustainable tourism practices. Additionally, it allows startups to acquire valuable insights and feedback from gastronomic experts, developing their understanding of sustainable culinary strategies. This opportunity enhances Middle Eastern startups’ visibility and fosters collaborations with international stakeholders, promoting cross-cultural exchange and innovation.

All gastronomic startups with a full-time team are eligible to apply to the competition via this link: UN Tourism 4th Global Gastronomy Tourism Startup Competition

What plans does UN Tourism have to continue supporting the development of gastronomy tourism, specifically in the Middle East?

This being the 4th edition of the competition, it showcases the industry’s relevance. Moreover, the final will be part of a gastronomy tourism forum taking place this fall in Bahrain. Additionally, it will feature regional and international officials and experts analyzing tendencies and best practices.

Under the umbrella of our investment framework, UN Tourism is dedicated to uplifting talent in the sector. Specifically, it aims to invest in people through education, in our planet seeking sustainable practices and in harnessing innovation to advance prosperity.

Given tourism’s broad scope and influence on various sectors, it must be viewed as a transversal sector. Therefore, our work continues to encompass multiple directions and has a global focus. In the Middle East, we not only work on this initiative but also foster a supportive approach for women’s talent. Moreover, the Women in Tech startup competition: the Middle East, received over 140 regional applicants, identifying top talents locally.

Why is the final taking place in Bahrain?

Tourism is a crucial economic driver globally, and the Middle East is no exception. According to the latest UN Tourism Barometer launched in January 2024, the region led the recovery by regions in relative terms. It was the only region to surpass pre-pandemic levels with arrivals 22 percent above 2019. To provide context, international tourism receipts reached USD 1.4 trillion in 2023, approximately 93 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to preliminary estimates.

Moreover, Middle Eastern food has always been renowned for its rich flavors, spices and various culinary practices. Among these countries, Bahrain stands out, offering a wide variety of traditional and innovative food, including a fusion of Asian and Mediterranean flavors. This makes it an attractive destination for gastronomic enthusiasts.

Bahrain has remarkable tourism growth in the region and unique gastronomic and cultural offerings. Consequently, this makes Bahrain a perfect stage for the 9th UN Tourism World Forum on Gastronomy Tourism. Here, the finalists of the competition will pitch their solutions to industry stakeholders.

We call on all regionally based entrepreneurs to participate in the 4th Global Gastronomy Tourism Startup Competition. Join us in transforming the industry and making a positive social impact on the societies of the future.




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Rita Ghantous

Rita Ghantous is a hospitality aficionado and a passionate writer with over 9 years’ experience in journalism and 5 years experience in the hospitality sector. Her passion for the performance arts and writing, started early. At 10 years old she was praised for her solo performance of the Beatles song “All My Love” accompanied by a guitarist, and was approached by a French talent scout during her school play. However, her love for writing was stronger. Fresh out of school, she became a freelance journalist for Noun Magazine and was awarded the Silver Award Cup for Outstanding Poetry, by The International Library of Poetry (Washington DC). She studied Business Management and earned a Masters degree from Saint Joseph University (USJ), her thesis was published in the Proche-Orient, Études en Management book. She then pursued a career in the hospitality industry but didn’t give up writing, that is why she launched the Four Points by Sheraton Le Verdun Newsletter. Her love for the industry and journalism led her to Hospitality Services - the organizers of the HORECA trade show in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, as well as Salon Du Chocolat, Beirut Cooking Festival, Whisky Live and other regional shows. She is currently the Publications Executive of Hospitality News Middle East, Taste & Flavors and Lebanon Traveler. It is with ultimate devotion for her magazines that she demonstrates her hospitality savoir-faire.

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