Renee Rollins started specializing in genealogical travel six years ago, after she explored her own Italian roots.
“My mother and I went to try to find family in Tereglio, north of Lucca in Tuscany,” recounts the Virtuoso travel advisor in Garden Grove, California. “We had gotten my great-grandmother’s birth certificate, and the gentleman said, ‘oh, and you know you still have family in the village,’ and gave us an address.”
No one answered when Rollins and her mother knocked, so they went to have lunch nearby. There, a woman named Claudia struck up a conversation with their Italian-speaking guide. After learning why they were visiting, she asked for their contact information and the name of Rollins’ great-grandmother.
“Ten days after we got home, we got a letter saying, ‘please come back, my father wants to meet you,’” Rollins continues. “Claudia had shown mom’s grandmother’s name to her dad, and he said, ‘that woman was my grandmother’s sister.’”
Rollins and her mother have returned to visit every year since.
Growing in Popularity
Genealogical travel – sometimes called heritage or roots tourism – is a growing specialty. That’s due partly to resources that didn’t exist a decade ago. Sites like Ancestry.com and TV shows like Genealogy Roadshow and Who Do You Think You Are? ignite interest and give people the tools to research their heritage.
“These trips can be very simple, or very complex,” explains Marion Hager, a Virtuoso travel advisor in Scottsdale, Arizona, “but the result is the same: a sense of connection with one’s roots.” Hager partners with celebrity genealogist Megan Smolenyak, of Who Do You Think You Are? fame, to customize genealogical travel for people seeking their roots.
“For some people, that means a whole tour structured around their family’s history. For other travelers, it means an hour while they stops by an archive office to access paperwork – death certificates, birth certificates, marriage licenses, addresses,” says Ashley Ganz with Virtuoso partner Artisans of Leisure. Ganz’s company has arranged countless genealogical travel experiences.
“Genealogical tourism is growing in popularity simply because the world is becoming a much smaller place,” notes Laura Madrid, a Virtuoso travel consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina who specializes in family and multi-generational travel. “People in general are much more aware of the world because they are doing business globally and because they are now traveling more than ever. The annual trip to the beach is no longer satisfying more travelers and even places we have traveled to for years like Italy and France are no longer going to be enough for the intrepid traveler. So when coming up with our bucket lists, I think a place with particular meaning such as where our family roots sprung makes the list.”
Who Is the Genealogical Traveler?
Those interested in genealogical travel are typically in their 50s or older. “They are parents who want to show their children their heritage, or empty nesters who finally have some time to research their family tree,” says Madrid.
Frequently they bring the whole family along. “Travelers are able to travel at an older age now, with these multigenerational tours, sometimes great-grandparents are going. People are living longer, healthier, and able to travel much later in life now,” observes Ganz.
From a man who hadn’t visited Vietnam since his adoption as a child, to a Jewish woman seeking details about her past that her parents were reluctant to give, Ganz has helped many people discover their roots through genealogical travel.
She notes: “Travelers always comment that’s an amazing experience, to be in Russia eating buckwheat, they say, ‘I grew up eating buckwheat, but I never knew it was a staple of Russian cuisine. My grandparents just always cooked it for me.’ They just never made the connection. We hear this all the time about cuisine, music, religious tradition, words, language even. They hear words that have been casually put into a sentence often, then to be in the country and hear that, it all comes together when they’re in the destination, helps them to see the bigger picture.”
Where Are Genealogical Travelers Going?
The most common destinations roots travelers visit are Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Germany and Eastern Europe. They come home with new information and new memories.
“Our clients wanted to go to Germany, and had a name and birthdate, but not much more,” Ganz remembers. “One of our advisors went on Ancestry.com and found information about their family and where they lived. All of this was with the consent of the traveler, of course. We arranged to take them to all the towns in Germany where their family was from, and to go to records offices, cemeteries, and houses where they used to live.”
One of the most memorable genealogical trips Hager designed was for a minister and his wife. They took a group of friends to Northern Ireland to meet and visit his family. “One of the friends who accompanied them (a 90-year-old gentleman) had a grandfather buried in a cemetery near the town in which the minister’s family lived, and he was able to visit the grave,” recalls Hager. “All the minister’s family members and their friends held a breakfast after church on Sunday and the mayor presented him the key to the city.”
The Power of Genealogical Travel
Joanna Śliwierska with Mazurkas Travel in Warsaw, Poland focuses on Jewish heritage travel. She’s seen the power of these genealogical travel journeys firsthand. “These trips are usually very emotional,” she observes. “We are not only putting together elements of a sightseeing program, with reservations at hotels and restaurants and entrance fees. We are putting together elements of someone’s life.”
Śliwierska notes that sometimes people find more than they expected, which is a “great emotional moment … This is a sentimental journey to find out where we came from and find the memory of people that were a part of our family, our life. But at the same time it is not only for finding the documents and houses (often no longer existing) or tombs at the cemeteries. It is finding ourselves and where we came from. Pieces that fulfill our own picture.”
Tips for Genealogical Travel
- Research your family history before planning the trip. Sites like Ancestry.com make it easy to do so. Or hire a genealogist to do the sleuthing for you. “The more information the traveler has about where their family actually lived the better, we can often get travelers right there, and it makes it that much more personalized and meaningful,” says Ganz.
- Have your DNA analyzed. “You take your DNA with a swab, and there’s a company they use that will tell you what areas your DNA has come from, and also bring forth people who have had the same DNA done,” Rollins comments. “They say, according to your DNA, there’s a possibility of being third to fifth cousins with these people, then a lot of people get in touch with those people and try to figure out how they’re related. What’s been very interesting for us, my mother and myself, we found all kinds of cousins in the United States that we didn’t know about.”
- Since a significant number of genealogical travel experiences are family vacations, they should be designed to maximize activities and bonding. “Whether clients are attending festivals, having a cooking class, or meeting with an art expert, keep it educational, but also fun,” recommends Ganz.
- Work genealogical travel into a larger trip. For example, if you’re on a cruise, and it stops in a city or town where you had ancestors, take a few hours to explore your roots there.
- Find guides, not just translators, who know the area’s history and can talk about what happened in specific neighborhoods and buildings. “They can bring the history alive,” Ganz notes. “To actually be there hearing about it in the context of the place makes it much more powerful and meaningful.”
- Talk with the locals. “When visiting a long-lost homeland, travelers tend to try to strike up conversations with locals and let them know they are from there,” Madrid points out. “They often end up establishing some type of personal connection or at least a feeling of brotherhood.”
- If you don’t have enough information on your ancestors to do a detailed genealogical trip, consider a heritage tour instead. Explains Ganz, “Heritage tours are a little broader. Travelers may not have any specific information about where their ancestors used to live, but they want to visit the area, taste the food, without delving too deeply.”
- Partner with a travel advisor who can help you plan the genealogical travel experience you’ve always envisioned. Find an experienced travel advisor at virtuoso.com.