Tea Tourism is Growing

Because consumers want to know as much as possible about the origins of food and beverage products, tea tourism is on the rise.

Tours are offered through a variety of companies, from the tea purveyor themselves to a tour operator, such as World Tea Tours, which led its first trip about 30 years ago. After traveling to China in 1996, tours expanded to Nepal, South Korea, Sri Lanka, India, and Japan.

“There’s an inherent trust or interest in people who grow and cultivate the tea, rather than people who market tea,” says tea explorer and puerh procurer Jeff Fuchs, who gave a keynote at this year’s World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada. “It’s not blingy, glitzy marketing anymore. If you can bring people into the forest in the early morning and sip some tea and collect some leaves, that works for all sides. We’re inundated with gimmicky marketing. We identify with products that have a human narrative.”

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World Tea Tours takes a highly customizable approach to itineraries, more often working with private groups.  (Photo: World Tea Tours)

What sets these tours apart is that they are highly immersive and very hands-on, as well as intimate, with between five and 12 people on each.

“I don’t see myself as a travel agency,” admits Annabel Kalmar, founder of tea purveyor Tea Rebellion, who took tea lovers (a mix of tea enthusiasts and tea-industry buyers) to Nepal tea farms in April. “I like to take people along on the trips I’m planning anyway because it’s the richest part of having a tea company, going out in the fields.” The only destinations visited are those where Tea Rebellion has farmer relationships.

On the recent six-day journey, participants explored a family-owned tea farm that’s part of Nepal Tea Collective; immersed themselves in hands-on tea production, such as plucking tea leaves and the subsequent oxidation process; and created tea blends.

Dan Robertson, of World Tea Tours, who imports, blends, and purveys tea through The Tea House, has always taken a highly customizable approach to itineraries, more often working with private groups. “I don’t just put them together on a whim. It takes me a year or two years to set up an itinerary,” he says. “I don’t just go to the tourist spots. I’m going to introduce you to people you’d never meet on your own.”

Tours go a long way to boost a tea brand’s credibility and further market a tea purveyor as an expert.

“It’s for a certain person who likes to understand the complexity of a tea farm and how tea is made,” says Kalmar. “Everything is very transparent.”

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Nepal Tea Collective has hosted 26 tea tours to Nepal. (Photo: Nepal Tea Collective)

“Traceability and transparency are such a big thing in the tea industry,” agrees Nischal “Nish” Banskota, a second-generation tea producer who founded Nepal Tea Collective in 2016 and has hosted 26 tea tours to Nepal. “I wanted to be able to connect with the farmers and show their stories.”

Each tea bag’s QR code allows the tea drinker to see the tea’s journey from start to finish, including photos of farmers that make the tea possible. In 1984, Banskota’s parents started the country’s first certified-organic tea garden. But many Nepalese tea farmers remain unknown.

“Ninety-six percent of teas that are exported from Nepal go to India and are rebranded as Indian teas,” says Banskota. “The Nepalese farmers never get a fair price and will never be able to have an identity. I really wanted to change that.”

The types of people who take tea tours need to be okay with rugged travel and rustic settings.

“A lot of the tea trip is about getting to the farm,” says Kalmar. “In a way, it’s adventure travel.”

This travel experience may be far from luxurious but goes deep in other ways. “You’re going to get your shoes dirty and you will know 99% more than other people about tea,’ says Robertson.

For example, on Kalmar’s tours, tea tastings are often alongside the farmers. “We taste first-flush teas,” says Kalmar.

In addition to plucking tea leaves alongside tea farmers, making one’s own tea is part of Nepal Tea Collective’s trips. “It really elevates your idea of what tea is and how to sell it and market it,” says Banskota.

That knowledge is equally helpful for those growing the tea. “This allows my farmers to understand, ‘Who are these people on the other side?’” says Banskota.

Trips are a great way to show customers what you’re doing with direct trade. In October, Raj Vable, founder of Kumaon Tea and Young Mountain Tea (an online and wholesale tea retailer), will lead his 17th trip, to the Himalayas in Northern India and to visit Kumaon Tea’s new farmer-owned, tea-processing factory—the first in the region.

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Kumaon Tea Indian tea farmers. (Photo: Young Mountain Tea)

“This is not just eco-tourism through the lens of tea,” says Vable about his tours, which highlight that he’s a direct-trade company. “We’re putting our money where the mouth is by allowing you to come meet the farmers yourself. The whole region is a classroom where people can learn about the people behind their teas and what kind of technologies are being used to introduce new styles of Indian tea to the market. “

On a past tour, an organizer of the Portland Tea Festival attended along with an NPR journalist, a PhD student studying the botany of tea, and a tea entrepreneur. “This is a deep dive into the way tea is made complete with lectures, cultivation, and hands-on workshops for participants to understand how growers make the teas that we all make,” says Vable. “How do we close the gap between the tea farmers and the tea drinkers? There are so many intermediaries in the supply chain that prevent tea drinkers from knowing who makes it.”

For a small tea company already consumed with meeting customer demands, the prospect of running tea tours might seem daunting. But the good news is that if solid relationships are already established with tea growers and tea farms, more than half the work is done.

“Partnerships on the ground are vital,” says Fuchs. “It’s not simply having a travel agency that sets up the hotel and the logistics of the transport. It’s up to some of us to encourage tea growers and cultivators to look beyond selling and marketing their leaves.”

 

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