For many years the Japanese town of Inakadate remained a sleepy little place that welcomed few visitors. With just 8,000 residents, who traditionally relied primarily on farming, the town, which has neither alluring seas nor striking mountains, offered little in the way of interest for tourists, unless you felt like staring at rice fields!
But it was these very same rice fields that turned Inakadate into a major hit. Every summer since 1993 the fields are transformed into gigantic works of art, attracting thousands of visitors and starting a tradition that has now become the backbone of Inakadate’s tourism industry.
The story of Inakadate highlights how agri-tourism, one of the fastest growing sectors in the eco-tourism industry, can revitalise a community and appeal so much to travellers.
In the shoes of farmers
Fundamentally, agri-tourism involves agriculturally-based operations that draw visitors to a farm or any natural site for outdoor recreation, education, shopping, or short stays.
With ‘getting back to nature’ becoming a new slogan for modern-day healthy lifestyles, agri-tourism is gaining increasing popularity among tourists all around the globe. Visiting a rice field, joining harvest festivals, staying at animal farms, or picking fresh produce all draw a great many tourists to the countryside. When city-dwellers tire of the concrete jungle, over-crowded transport and shopping malls, the farmland suddenly reveals its inner charm. The long-forgotten rhymes of cicadas and crickets, not the ringing of an iPhone, are what most crave. So turn off the wi-fi, put on your farmer’s hat, and start exploring the organic circle of how the vegetables we eat come to life or perhaps take the kids for their first fishing lesson.
Although many people would like to think that agri-tourism dates back as far as civilisation has existed, most agree that modern-day agricultural tourism really only started over the last few decades as a way of giving small farmers another means of survival.
Agricultural tourism then hit the world by storm, with notable success stories found in countries such as Italy, Spain, the US, Canada, Israel, and the Philippines. Going beyond the traditional route of planting crops and raising livestock, agri-tourism has proved to be the solution for farmers to keep the farm and make a living from it at the same time. The business model, however, varies from one farm to another and from country to country. While some farms in the US have found a path out of hardship in corn mazes, which now even feature modern apps like maps on smartphones, others offer the chance to pick your own pumpkins or take a pony ride. Agriturismo, as it is known in Italy, on the other hand, is popular for rustic family-run farm stays, where guests can enjoy home-cooked meals on a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory tour, which shows the entire farm-to-table process from untreated milk to finished product. Today, in Italy, agriturismo has reached a high level of sophistication, sometimes showcasing elegant cuisine and exclusive winery tours.
In an age when people are constantly seeking new experiences, the idea of luxury hotels, for some, has become too dull, so moving from five stars to the farm guarantees a real taste of the day-to-day lifestyle of rural living, the earthy smell of farming products, the hominess of the wide-open spaces, the chance to put your feet on actual ground, direct your eyes to sky, and start to heal our deep and disturbing disconnection from the land that sustains us.
Vietnam, as an agricultural-dominated country, has tremendous potential for agri-tourism without much additional investment being needed given its abundance of natural resources, biological diversity, and strong cultural heritage.
Numerous projects have already sprung up all over the country with a view to revitalising the agriculture sector through tourism and increasing tourist traffic. Activities offered are diverse, from cultivating rice on a Ba Vi farm to collecting honey, from experiencing a day with herb farmers in the village of Tra Que to rural stays in Ha Giang, from exploring the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta to harvesting activities for kids in the outskirts of Hanoi.
Pawel, a tourist from Poland, loved having the chance to plant rice seedlings ‘It was a totally new experience for me, something I’ve never done before,’ he said. ‘I enjoyed it so much, seeing the way a small-scale family farm is run. It’s a tough life for farmers, though’.
Meanwhile, Judy from Australia was excited by her stay in a rural village in Ninh Binh. ‘I’m very much a country girl at heart and my homestay was wonderful,’ she said. ‘I had the chance to interact with very friendly local farmers in the village and luckily gained a glimpse into their everyday life.’
On many farms that welcome tourists, however, there is usually a lack of lodgings, so day trips are more common. For these farms the goal is less about providing a unique vacation and more about fostering a deeper understanding of the farming process through education and hands-on experience.
Tue Vien organic farm, just ten minutes from the centre of Hanoi, offers the perfect setting for visitors, especially families and children, to learn about the sustainable model of organic agriculture. For Ms Lien, the owner of the farm, they are not only promoting organic agriculture but also a natural, friendly way of life.
Every weekend Tue Vien opens its doors to hundreds of people of all ages coming to explore food production, from farming and processing.
Ms Yen, a working mother who visited the farm with her seven-year-old son, said the visit had not only been an exciting learning experience for her child but had also inspired her as well. ‘Like most kids in the city, my boy is very much into iPads and other electronic devices,’ she said. ‘One time I asked him, “where do vegetables come from?”, and he answered, without even thinking, “from the supermarket”. Something has to change in the way we educate our children. I started taking him to various farms so he knows where the food he eats every day comes from. I also become very mindful when buying fresh produce and I try to buy organic as often as possible.’
As a new product in a crowded market, agri-tourism in Vietnam still has a lot of untapped potential. No measures have been forthcoming from local authorities to regulate the development of the sector and at times the services offered are not up to expected standards. For travellers seeking new adventures, though, the unexpected might be just what they want.
So pick a farm, jump on your bike, leave the paved road for the dirt track and let the traffic noise fade into the background as you melt into green, green fields.