In a 2015 advertisement for leading genealogy company Ancestry, Kyle Merker described how he had grown up proud of his German heritage. For 50 years, he had eaten schnitzel and dressed in lederhosen, believing his ancestors to have immigrated to the US from Germany. But after taking a DNA test, he discovered that the majority of his lineage actually led back to Scotland and Ireland. “So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt,” Merker concluded.
With a growing number of people having their DNA analysed, there are more opportunities than ever for corporations to tap into the genealogy tourism market
The search for identity in one’s roots is nothing new, but this modern fascination with ancestry research began in 1977 with the TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, in which a family is followed through the generations, from abduction in Africa to enslavement and liberation in the US. As a 2010 study by Rafał Prinke in the Journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of America put it: “[A] genuine explosion of interest in genealogy as a hobby ensued.”
In the age of direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits, ancestry tracking is having something of a renaissance, especially among Americans. The convergence of accessible DNA tests, an enduring interest in heritage research and the increasing desire for more meaningful travel experiences is set to take the genealogy tourism market to new heights.
Unlocking the genome
In the decade to 2014, interest in online family history research grew 14-fold, according to a study commissioned by Ancestry. It was not until around 2014 itself, however, that direct-to-consumer DNA testing really kicked off – due, in large, to the drop in the cost of sequencing individuals’ genomes.
Thanks to the arrival of 23andMe, AncestryDNA, the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project and many other personal genomics companies, those curious about their family’s origins no longer have to go digging through old photographs or records.
A simple cheek swab can now reveal detailed information about one’s genetic makeup. Consequently, interest in DNA testing kits is thriving: the number of people to have had their DNA analysed with direct-to-consumer genealogy tests passed 12 million in 2017. That year, more individuals had their DNA analysed than in all previous years combined.
According to Dallen Timothy, a professor at Arizona State University and editor of the Journal of Heritage Tourism, this trend is likely broadening the genealogy tourism market by attracting younger generations: “[Home DNA tests are] much more approachable to the younger generation than sitting in front of a computer screen or [microfilm reader] trying to do family history.”
While data has not yet been collected to prove Timothy’s suspicions, he said: “I have a sense that it is starting to stimulate growth among young people to visit the homes of their ancestors.”
Testing the water
A significant proportion of heritage tourism occurs organically, but some countries have attempted to reel their respective diasporas back to the homeland through promotional campaigns.
Scotland, Ireland and Wales are currently regarded as the standard-bearers for this trend. Scotland, for example, declared 2009 as the ‘year of homecoming’, rolling out a series of events that, according to VisitScotland, attracted an estimated 70,000 additional visitors to the country. Further research conducted by the tourism board in 2015 and 2016 revealed that 23 percent of long-haul visitors were travelling to Scotland to explore their ancestry.
Similarly, Ireland attempted to target the 33 million US citizens who identify as Irish by dubbing 2013 ‘family history year’. Over the past few years in particular, the number of American tourists visiting the country has boomed, rising by 15 percent in 2016 and nearly 17 percent in 2017. A number of local companies, including My Ireland Tour and Irish Emigrant Trails, offer bespoke trips for genealogy tourists.
Although these countries’ efforts have only been moderately successful, Timothy believes a lot of other nations still look to them as a model of how to attract heritage tourists. Tourism boards from India to Poland are now jumping on the trend. West African nations, such as Ghana and Senegal, have also worked hard to bring the African diaspora back to the continent.
In the past, travellers who were interested in shedding light on their heritage had to create their own makeshift tours with the help of local genealogists. These professionals would act as guides, preparing documents or helping individuals to make contact with distant relatives. With a growing number of people having their DNA analysed, however, there are more opportunities than ever for corporations to tap into the genealogy tourism market.
Ancestry, for instance, has partnered with Go Ahead Tours to launch guided trips to Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Germany. Alongside accommodation, food and sightseeing trips, tour packages include an AncestryDNA kit, access to an Ancestry genealogist guide for the duration of the excursion and a pre-trip family history review. The tours range between 10 and 12 days, costing upwards of $3,500 per person excluding airfare.
In 2018, Ancestry took its travel offering a step further with a cruise from the UK to New York’s Ellis Island on the RMS Queen Mary 2. Together with cruise line Cunard, Ancestry promises customers the chance to walk – or sail, as it so happens – in their ancestors’ footsteps on a seven-night transatlantic trek. The journey also includes expert advice from four onboard Ancestry genealogists.
Likewise, US-based travel company Travel Services Unlimited launched DNA Journeys in 2015. This service provides customers with a DNA testing kit and a personalised itinerary specific to their heritage, budget and desired length of travel. Timothy predicts that more crossovers between travel companies and genetics firms will crop up in the future.
Shaping a narrative
As with anything, tourism trends evolve over time; currently, ‘authenticity’ and ‘experience’ are the industry’s go-to buzzwords. As Prinke wrote: “At one time, tourism was simply tourism.” But to travel today means to search for one’s place in a larger historical context. The advent of genealogical tourism “gives a convincing (even obvious) answer to treating tourism as a search for authentic self-identity”, Prinke explained.
Almost every country has a diaspora – whether large or small – but genealogy tourists typically come from former colonial societies. Americans, Canadians, Australians and others that fall into this category share a subliminal pull towards their ancestral homes. Timothy said: “I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but I think it has something to do with a deep sense of rootlessness.”
A 2009 examination of genealogical tourism by Carla Almeida Santos and Grace Yan, published in the Journal of Travel Research, described this type of travel as a “reflexive response to a sense of loss that underpins modern society, assisting in reaffirming both a generational sense of the self and self-recognition that one has one’s own perspective on the world”.
The umbrella term ‘heritage tourism’ contains a variety of subcategories – roots tourism, return travel and DNA tourism, to name a few – but they all meet at a common point, which Timothy described as “people travelling to discover who they are; to discover their rootedness in place”.
The importance of searching for identity should not be underestimated. Santos and Yan believe the idea of self-identity plays into a larger sense of familial legacy: “Much like a nation needs its national cultural identity recognised to unite its citizens, a family needs its identity and emotional bonding. For those interviewed, their genealogical tourism experiences meant the ability to assert their family’s identity and, in the process, build a stronger emotional connection with their family while contributing to its legacy.”
As Merker showed in his testimonial for Ancestry, our sense of self-identity can have a profound impact on our lives. Swapping lederhosen for a kilt may seem like a simple change in clothing, but rewriting the narrative of our life is no mean feat.