Explore Your Family's Past Through Genealogical Travel

A Personal Passport to Your Past

The presents have been opened, the wrapping paper thrown away, and maybe the boxes have come out of the attic, ready to return the ornaments to their annual incarceration. For many, though, the holiday season may linger in their minds for the rest of the year — or perhaps the rest of their lives. Why? Well, in 2018, plenty of people found a box from AncestryDNA or 23andMe waiting under the tree for them.

Genealogical DNA tests have begun to boom, as has the demand for genealogical products or services in general. More than one in 25 U.S. adults has access to personal genetic information, and research firm Global Industry Analysts has estimated that the market for genealogical goods has nearly doubled in the past five years.

What’s more, learning about a distant uncle from, say, the Canary Islands, or a great-great-grandmother who emigrated from Slovenia, has spawned a new type of tourism: genealogy travel. So what is this type of tourism, how does it differ from ordinary travel, and what steps should you take to plan your own trip?

What Is Heritage Travel?

Cutting across ethnic and socio-economic lines, ancestry tourism tends to appeal to one particular demographic: older adults with an interest in their family’s past. And though DNA testing has become the latest on-ramp for such travel, it’s far from the only way in which individuals get engaged with the idea.

Digging through old property transactions or chatting with other relatives can often spark an interest in heritage travel. So can connecting the dots between various pieces of personal history. Why does your family specialize in a particular type of ethnic food? How come Cousin Gloria has such distinctive features? Why did your ancestors choose to leave a particular part of the world?

President of the Board for Certification of Genealogists Jeanne L. Bloom told The New York Times, “In genealogy you never know what you are going to find or if you are going to find what you hoped to find.” That’s part of what makes genealogical travel so intriguing — and so challenging.

How Is DNA Tourism Different?

But just because DNA tourism sounds exciting, don’t think that you can just leap into it. Some experts estimate that your typical ancestry tourism trip can require up to six months of planning. Why? There’s a lot to learn, and putting it together into a cohesive whole requires quite a bit of homework and organization.

For one thing, travelers need to have an idea of where they want to go. A DNA test can help narrow that down to broad regions, but a place like, say, Eastern Europe is pretty large. You’ll need to know whether you want to visit Bucharest or Krakow, Prague or Chișinău.

If you poke around a bit, you’ll find lots of organizations willing to help you track down those details. Family Tree mentions several of them in an article about genealogy tourism. Some include famous centers such as the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, IN; the Latter-Day Saints’ Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah; and the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, MO.

Other helpful repositories and organizations include the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.; the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island in New York City; and the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, MA.

Having such information makes a big difference because your ancestors probably didn’t live around big-name sights and destinations. They likely dwelled in more ordinary areas, and those places won’t naturally pop up on an itinerary.

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Planning a Genealogical Trip

So once you have a more specific idea of the place from which your family hailed, how do you go about crafting a meaningful travel experience? One way to start involves hiring a local genealogist. A knowledgeable hotel concierge or genealogical society may help connect you with an expert who could connect you to the locales in which your heritage grew.

The Association of Professional Genealogists may also help. The fees may be steep, but they can spell the difference between an engaging itinerary or a failed trip.

Governments themselves may be able to help. Noting the increase in ancestry tourism, some countries are getting in on the trend. According to Ancestry.com, Scotland discovered in 2012 that some 50 million people across the world can trace their genetic heritage to Caledonia. That has led Scotland to step up ancestry tourism efforts.

Ireland, too, has taken to publishing state-sponsored guides for DNA tourism, including how to research one’s Irish ancestors. Germany, Poland, Canada and various U.S. municipalities offer aid to genealogical travelers.

Finally, if you don’t want to plan the trip yourself, you can turn to various tour groups. Ann-Mar Genealogy Trips provides literal research tours at the Allen County Public Library and the Family History Library. European Focus crafts bespoke tours, priding itself on helping travelers suss out ancestral details.

Aimed at U.K. and Continental customers, Ancestral Footsteps provides a similar service with five-star amenities. And Ancestral Attic specializes in Eastern European tours.

Whether you do the heavy lifting yourself or turn to a tour company, don’t expect ancestry travel to come cheap. Of course, though, that isn’t the point. We turn to such things to understand our past, the deep parts of ourselves and those we’ve loved and others we’ve never know — and such things have a very worthwhile price.

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