Why tour operators should tap into ancestry travel

As children, we would hope and dream that one day we would wake up to the life-changing news that we were related to royalty or the rich and famous. There was always the possibility in our vivid imaginations that a family secret kept the connection hidden for years and stopped us from inheriting millions. Our brains would tease us with potential relatives considered to be far superior to our own; inventing a whole new family tree to fuel the fantasy. However, as time goes on and real-life realities and rationalism sets in, these far-fetched speculations and hopeful discoveries become nothing more than a childhood pastime. 

While we may at times laugh at the silliness of our youth, a number of factors have led to the growing popularity of ancestry travel, catapulting the idea of genealogical discovery into adulthood. As individuals crave a sense of belonging and a connection to something much greater than themselves, the curiosity of heritage has seen tourism experts peg ancestry travel as one of the fastest-growing sectors in tourism today.

What is ancestry travel?

Everything that we do as humans, the decisions that we make, the actions that we take, the people that we interact with, are continually defining history. None of us would be here without the specific choices and connections that previous generations made, and the same can be said for us and the children of the future. For some, this crazy notion of history-making will be overlooked and brushed past in their day-to-day life, but for others, a deep dive into the past is truly meaningful and something that they simply must do to feel complete. 

For those that search for meaningful and authentic holiday experiences, ancestry travel, (sometimes also known as heritage travel, genealogy travel or DNA travel) ticks all of the boxes. Whether it be a pilgrimage back to the homeland, a search for a missing family member or delving into the history of a particular place, ancestry travel is often about colouring the past, filling in gaps and education. Defined as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present,” ancestry or heritage travel extends across cultural, historical and natural realms.

On a path of discovery

Although individuals have always traced their genealogical heritage, advancements in technology and increased leisure time during COVID-19 lockdowns, have meant that people have been more eager to do so in recent times than ever before. From tracing to testing, here’s why demand and accessibility for ancestry travel has surged in the past few years.

DNA testing

Once a laborious process that would require the assistance of medical professionals, vast amounts of cash and long waiting times, genetic testing has evolved in recent times to allow individuals to complete tests themselves at home. By simply requesting a testing kit online, completing a saliva sample at home and returning it via post for analysis, individuals can easily find out more than ever before about their genetic predisposition, health indicators, and ancestral background. 

In fact, the upsurgence in home testing is evident with over 26 million people delving into their DNA through home test kits by the start of 2019. With accessible price points from just $US59, along with regular promotional offers, the reduced cost of testing kits are leading to their popularity in North America, Europe, China and Japan. Not only are people interested in discovering this information for themselves, but they are also finding that DNA testing kits are proving to be great gifts.

Online records

Unsurprisingly, online archives and records have aided in the collection and reference of family trees across the world. As more and more people become interested in their past, websites specialising in ancestral discovery have boomed, such as AncestryProGenius, have over 10 million clients in their books and over 100 million family trees in their archives. People can now virtually build their family tree, receive notifications of any connections and directly contact long lost relatives. 

While research once consisted of trawling through old library records, newspapers and good ol’ door knocking, the digitalisation of this historic material has also helped in genealogical searches. Acting as a facilitator for people on the hunt for long lost relatives, Google is a powerful tool that is helping individuals tap into these records. Social media is also playing a huge role in stimulating interest in ancestry travel and making it easier for distant relatives to connect. 

Whether big or small, reaching out to potential family members or discovering homelands can literally be a few clicks away for some.

Media exposure

While the ease of DNA testing and online records have been drawing more people into the world of ancestral discovery, the exposure that this travel niche has had in the media has also fuelled it’s popularity. Documentaries, television series and movies such as Go Back to Where You Came From, have been inspiring people to not only travel to beautiful places around the world but to do so while on a journey of historical, genealogical and genetic discovery. 

Cottoning on to the sheer size, power and sentimental value of this travel group, major tourism businesses have been working their magic to stimulate more interest in heritage travel. One way that Airbnb has gone about this has been to partner with 23andMe, a DNA testing company, to further promote the notion that you can shape travel around your genetic population. Through the recommendation of particular accommodation rentals, experiences and activities, Airbnb hopes to create authentic experiences for individuals who are wanting to get back to their roots and heritage.

Reflective of the current world situation, media outlets and companies have also been promoting heritage discovery as worldwide lockdowns have left people with ample time to look into their family ancestry. For instance, public libraries in New Zealand have been directing people to family history guides and helping them to build up their family tree online. The result of increased exposure and discussion in the media is clear when looking at the 37% increase in subscriptions, year over year, that the Ancestry site has experienced during the pandemic. COVID-19 has given people the world over the opportunity to trace their roots and has planted the seed of associated travel with it.

Travel experiences

Jumping on the bandwagon of niche travel, there are many tour operators around the world that specialise in this niche market. Helping people to connect with their origins and learn about their heritage through immersive travel experiences, the likes of My China Roots, Ancestral Footsteps and My Ireland Family Heritage run packaged group tours centering around places of ancestral significance. Oftentimes with a genealogist and historian in tow, these companies give tourists the opportunity to walk in their ancestors’ footsteps. 

For those that strive to truly personalise travel experiences for their travellers, companies will use the individual DNA tests of a person to take them on their own journey of ancestral heritage. This may mean visiting sites of historical significance such as churches and museums, or simply walking through nature and across the land that was home to previous generations. With even cruise programmes offering tours to their market, ancestry travel can look different for each person.

A youthful perspective

Often, images of older travellers spring to mind when the term ancestry travel is mentioned. However, we would like to stop you in your tracks as this is not entirely true.  

Taking into account that technological advances have shifted much genealogy work online, it is no surprise that the appeal to a younger audience has increased. Despite experiencing great deals of hyper-connectivity through social media, all too often the youth of today feel disconnected and lacking anything of deep substance; with ancestry travel offering to fulfill this desire. 

A study released by the Oxford University Press in 2020 indicates that younger travellers are great participants in ancestry travel, but for very different reasons to older generations. While identity building is a strong driver of travel for the younger generations, older individuals see their genealogical discovery as an excuse for a memorable, grand, bucket-list trip. Undoubtedly, history and connections resonate far more with younger individuals than what they learn in the classroom. 

Encouraging those aged 18-32 years who are of the Jewish faith to uncover their religious identity in Israel, the Birthright Israel programme is a great example of younger people engaging in ancestry travel. Acting as a pilgrimage and educational trip to the homeland for overseas-based Jews, the all-inclusive free trip inspires individuals to understand the history of their roots, feel connected to ancestors, and become part of a global community. In fact, a study on this particular trip has shown that American-based Jews who take part are more likely to feel a stronger connection to Israel and their faith than those who did not. 

Tour operators need to be cognisant of this multi-generational interest when catering to, attracting and pleasing ancestral tourists.

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