In the summer of 2000, my brother and I found ourselves on a rickety train heading from Bucharest to the city of Braila in the eastern part of Romania. We were on our way to meet with some of our only living relatives on our father’s side of the family, including an elderly great uncle, his children and grandchildren.
The visit felt like a step back in time and into another world. Their very modest home featured a small vegetable garden and a large chicken coop that helped to feed the family.
Over lunch, it became increasingly apparent how totally different our lives and realities had become, how one family member’s decision to emigrate to the United States could so drastically alter the opportunities available to us economically, educationally and otherwise.
We shared stories about the relatives we had in common, and they showed us photos of our family. An image of our great uncle when he was younger revealed that my brother was his spitting image, an exercise in the amazing randomness of genetics.
For whatever reason, we had felt compelled to undertake the not uncomplicated journey to this remote region to find a piece of our past that could perhaps help us make better sense of our ourselves, of who we are and where we came from.
It is precisely this type of heritage exploration on which a growing number of people are embarking, thanks to DNA-testing companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.
In our case, we relied on existing family ties to help us connect with our kin. But for many people who do not have access to living relatives or to historical family documents or who would like to go back much further than just two or three generations, better and easier access to DNA technology and advancements in genealogical research are providing them with information about their roots that they never had before.
Consequently, DNA tests are motivating a new and growing wave of heritage travel.
“We’ve always had customers who were interested in aligning with the stories that they’ve heard from growing up, where they’re from, even wanting to know and trying to connect with family,” said Robin Hauck, director of business development and partnerships at Go Ahead Tours. “Now that people have either done a DNA test themselves or have family members that have done a DNA test, they’re hearing about it, and they want to take that next step and get even closer to their own family in the place of their ancestors.”
People who have done a DNA test ‘want to get even closer to their own family in the place of their ancestors.’
As a result, Hauck said, heritage travel in general “has become much more popular.”
Last fall, Go Ahead Tours teamed up with Ancestry
.com to launch a line of heritage tours that combine Ancestry’s DNA analyses and genealogical research services with Go Ahead’s tour operations.
For many people, DNA-analysis kits from companies like Ancestry and 23andMe become the starting point in a quest to uncover genealogical roots.
Kyle Betit, travel program operations manager at AncestryProGenealogists, Ancestry’s genealogical research division, said, “After taking an Ancestry DNA test, people may discover in their results that they have ancestors from parts of the world they didn’t know about and be inspired to learn more by visiting those destinations.”
Betit said the number of people who have taken the Ancestry DNA test continues to grow, with more than 10 million clients now in the company’s DNA network. Ancestry also claims to have some 10 billion family history records and more than 100 million family trees in its archives.
One of the companies that has popularized DNA analysis, 23andMe, started selling its DNA kits to consumers in 2007 for close to $1,000 per kit. Now the DNA kits cost as little as $99 per person, and 23andMe’s database has grown to more than 5 million customers.
Traveling back in time
Kathy Wurth of Family Tree Tours, center in light green, leading a heritage travel group in Germany last year. Wurth was inspired to launch Family Tree Tours after going on a heritage tour with her mother in the 1970s.
Ultimately, the discoveries people are uncovering are motivating many to take their research a step further and to travel to their ancestral homelands. That motivation is creating opportunities for travel agents and suppliers.
Kathy Wurth, owner and founder of St. Louis-based Family Tree Tours, recalled, “When I started this 10 or 11 years ago, there weren’t that many people that did it, but boy I’ll tell you, I don’t know if it’s the commercials for the DNA kits, the baby boomers that are retiring — sometimes when you get older you start thinking about these kinds of things — TV shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ that show people trying to find where their roots came from.”
Whatever the reasons, the trend in genealogical travel has “really exploded,” Wurth said.
Family Tree Tours specializes in Germany and Ireland, where Wurth has partnered with local genealogical experts to help execute the tours. She decided to launch the business after doing her own heritage tour with her mother in the late 1970s. The experience introduced her to genealogical research, a process that she said she found very rewarding.
Depending on how specific the information is that clients have about their past, Wurth will cater the tour based on that. So if they only know that they had family in a region of Germany, such as Bavaria, the tour will be more general and will focus on larger historical events and movements that likely would have impacted clients’ relatives. If they know they had family in a certain town, Family Tree Tours can arrange to take them to that specific location and will find a local English-speaking contact who can serve as a host.
She said that what people are hoping to find “runs a really big gamut. It depends on how into it you are.”
Some clients are simply interested in the country or countries where they have roots, while others are hoping to connect with actual places where their relatives might have lived…
Some clients, she said, are simply interested in the country or countries where they have roots, while others are hoping to connect with actual places where their relatives might have lived or even to find some relatives. She said people do it for a wide range of emotional reasons.
Kieron’s roots took him to Benin, Africa and to the heart of his ancestors’ culture. Knowing more about where he comes from has not only brought him closer to his ancestors, it has, in his words, made him a more confident person.
In 2015, Your Travel Services, an agency with offices in South Carolina and Texas, launched DNA Journeys, a division devoted to genealogical travel. Jennifer Horan, who heads marketing and business development for Your Travel Services, said DNA Journeys has taken off to the point that they are recruiting more agents to help expand the business and tackle the growing waitlist for trips.
Last year, Your Travel Services booked about 32 DNA Journeys trips. This year, the agency is on track to send between 50 and 60 clients on heritage trips, and the waitlist extends into next year.
“Once they take the DNA test and it comes back,” Horan said, “we encourage clients to start building their family tree with their immediate relatives. We help them get as far back as we can. … We use a combination of vital records, different genealogy websites, any personal records that the client might have and take it as far as we possibly can.”
Horan said that typically, DNA Journeys helps clients get family information that goes at least as far back as the 1700s or 1800s.
DNA Journeys charges $500 for its services, which include a DNA kit through Ancestry, 23andMe or National Geographic or through an independent lab the agency uses for more specialized cases, such as for clients who were adopted. It also includes additional genealogical research with which DNA Journeys assists.
Once all the information has been assembled, DNA Journeys starts building a custom trip. While most trips have been to Ireland, the U.K., Germany, Italy, France and Scandinavia, the agency has also built custom heritage trips to Romania, Cuba, South America, Kenya, Egypt and Mongolia.
Sometimes the itinerary is fully customized from start to finish. At other times, DNA Journeys will partner with an operator such as Globus to execute part of the trip, then will customize the rest. For example, the company has clients taking an Avalon Waterways river cruise in Romania, from where they will hop off and do some personalized digging. In other destinations, such as Ireland and Italy, the company will have private guides meet with guests.
Horan said that while she is willing to help execute a trip just about anywhere in the world, DNA Journeys won’t take clients to an active war zone or a destination that’s in turmoil, which means that countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan are not offered.
Tour operators see an uptick
Barbara Daniels with her fiance in Italy. Daniels won a contest for heritage travel on iHeartRadio after getting her DNA analysis from 23andMe.
In addition to agencies and tour operators that specialize in this type of travel, mainstream agents and operators are also seeing a growing number of requests from people wanting to visit their ancestral homelands.
Scott Wiseman, president of Travel Impressions, said, “Demand for Europe continues to grow, and genealogy reports have contributed to the region’s success. Many people are discovering they have roots in places they never would have imagined, which drives curiosity.
“This is a huge opportunity for travel agents, especially those who specialize in specific geographical areas.”
“This manifests in a number of ways, including the desire to visit locales encompassed within these genealogy reports. This is a huge opportunity for travel agents, especially those who specialize in specific geographical areas.”
Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands, said genealogical research and organizing vacations around following one’s heritage are becoming increasingly popular, thanks in part to the DNA-mapping companies.
She said Globus’ custom tour services has been handling the genealogy-related requests it gets from agents and clients, and it strives to create personalized experiences to help guests “walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.”
David Fishman of Travel Leaders in Southfield, Mich., reported seeing a growing interest in travel to Russia, for example, from people who want to go “back to their roots and see the countries that they came from. Some clients potentially still have family there.”
“Another reason people are visiting is because of the popularity of Ancestry.com and 23andMe,” he said.
A DNA kit from 23andMe, which creates ancestry composition reports based on genetic similarities to 31 reference populations worldwide.
For those interested in finding out more about their recent or distant ancestors, there are several different paths available, and it’s important to know what kind of information each could and should be able to provide.
“When you spit in a tube and send that saliva to Ancestry,” Hauck said, “what you receive back is basically a dashboard that shows you your ethnicity estimate and your DNA matches.
“Your ethnicity estimate shows you what percentage of your DNA comes from what areas. Your DNA matches show you anyone who has also done a DNA kit that you link up with. From there, it’s kind of up to each person to drill deeper.”
Jhulianna Cintron, senior product specialist at 23andMe, said the company analyzes customers’ DNA and creates an ancestry composition report based on genetic similarities to 31 reference populations worldwide.
“The more specific the information you have about the places that your ancestors lived and emigrated from — such as the village, town, parish or county — the more meaningful the trip is likely to be.”
Another option is to use 23andMe’s DNA relatives tool, which clients must opt into. It locates other 23andMe members with whom they share DNA and provides them with a predicted relationship based on the percentage of DNA they share with that person.
“In terms of DNA, things like towns and villages and even tribes, those are not things that can be identified through DNA,” Cintron said.
Once customers have their DNA kit results, they typically need to invest some of their own time and detective work into finding out more, if they so desire. Ancestry.com, for example, can also help, as it offers additional research services.
“The more specific the information you have about the places that your ancestors lived and emigrated from — such as the village, town, parish or county — the more meaningful the trip is likely to be,” said Betit of AncestryProGenealogists.
“Sometimes people are fortunate to have this information passed down in their families, and in other cases, we do extensive professional genealogical research to determine the specific ancestral home to visit.”