Italian region looks for foodies in bid for tourism boost

Long mocked for its poor weather and relatively obscure for many foreign tourists, the Piedmont region in northwest Italy is bidding to become a new destination for food and wine lovers.

With Tuscan cities like Florence and Pisa regularly overrun by the summer hordes, tourism officials in Piedmont say their region has been spared and is a better fit for higher-spending foreigners who want some peace and quiet.

"Bed and breakfasts, charming hotels and farmhouses - that's the tourism we like, not mass tourism," Maria Elena Rossi, head of the tourism department for Piedmont told reporters on a media tour aimed at boosting the region.

Inside the fresco-filled Castello della Manta, a mediaeval manor set on a wooded hillside southwest of the regional capital Turin, the talk at the gourmet restaurant is about making the most of the local cuisine.

"It's true we have nice countryside and interesting architecture but it's not enough to bring in tourists year-round. They won't come except for in the high season," restaurant manager Marco Ghione told AFP on a tour.

"With gastronomy, the tourists come all year round," he said.

The restaurant occupies a wing of the castle and the kitchens are decorated with antique utensils and paintings. But the cooking is nouvelle cuisine, with rather stodgy local dishes adapted to demand for lighter food.

"We are revising all the dishes of traditional Piedmontese cuisine and adapting them to today's needs. We are using products from the region and cooking them in a lighter way," Ghione said.

The plan appears to be working and officials are expecting an increase of 10 percent in the number of "gastronomic tourists" coming this year.

The length of time tourists stay and the amounts they spend are also rising.

Foodie tourists are estimated to spend an average of 130 euros (185 dollars) per day - double the amount of a normal visitor.

Headlining Piedmont's campaign are the wines that have made the region famous - Barolo and Barbaresco.

But locals are hoping they will be drawn by more than just that.

"The tourists who come here are those who want to get off the beaten track looking for a charming atmosphere linked to tradition," Rossi said.

"We shouldn't forget that it was Piedmont that gave birth to the Slow Food movement" - an international campaign for tasty and environmentally sustainable cuisine that has some 100,000 members, she added.

Where are these high-end tourists coming from?

"Half of them are Europeans, mainly from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. But they are also coming from the United States and Japan," Rossi said.

Robin Gheesling, a US wine taster, says the region is gaining in prominence.

"Piedmont is increasing in importance for Americans, particularly after Tuscany which is now saturated, she said.

"Americans are looking for another region to discover and since Barolo is one of the most famous wines, it's a place people want to find out about."

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