Travel

America’s love of ancestry hits the road. Welcome to heritage tourism.

Actress Lea Michele travels to Ellis Island to learn about her ancestry on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?”  Inspired by genealogy-themed TV shows, DNA test kits, and ancestry research websites, Americans are now studying their family trees by traveling back to their homelands, fueling the trend of heritage tourism.
Actress Lea Michele travels to Ellis Island to learn about her ancestry on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?” Inspired by genealogy-themed TV shows, DNA test kits, and ancestry research websites, Americans are now exploring their family trees by traveling back to their homelands, fueling the trend of heritage tourism.

Tens of millions of Americans have signed up to research their genealogy on websites such as Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com, or purchased DNA testing kits through companies like 23andme. As a nation of immigrants, we want to know where we’re from.

Now, we not only want to know our country of origin, we want to explore it, too. Professional genealogists are seeing a rise in heritage tourism.

“We’ve had more and more people asking us to assist them in preparing for trips back to their ancestral homes,” said Alice Kane, consultations manager at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. “People are contacting us to help them with research, so they’re prepared when they travel overseas. One of the things we tell them is to plan a few months in advance so they have time to do the research and make the most out of their trip.”

Advertisement

The fascination with genealogy and travel led Ancestry.com to team up with Go Ahead to start offering genealogy tours of Ireland, Italy, and Germany this year. For about $3,200 (depending on the destination and the length of the trip), travelers get a DNA kit, an opportunity to research their family history before the trip with assistance from a genealogist, and a group tour of the country, with a genealogist shared by a group. Earlier this month, two dozen travelers participated in the company’s first (and sold-out) genealogy tour of Ireland. Several upcoming trips are sold out or nearing capacity.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Kyle Betit, a genealogist with 30 years experience who headed up the Ancestry.com Ireland trip, aid family tree research has grown beyond names and dates.

“There’s been a big shift in what people are interested in,” he said. “Really what people want are the interesting stories. I think it’s somewhat more real when you actually have a physical experience like traveling to a place where your ancestors lived, rather than just reading about it and seeing a report or a book.”

He said heritage tourists are looking for an experience similar to what they see on television shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots” when they travel or hire researchers. Unfortunately, they’re not going to get that level of detail — researchers on those shows spend hundreds of hours looking at the family trees of celebrities — but those participating in the Ancestry.com trips get a general feel for their motherland.

“There is a convergence happening now between the genealogy industry and the travel industry,” said George G. Morgan, the author of “How to Do Everything Genealogy.”

Advertisement

Genealogy tourism has been around for decades, but primarily as private or small, regional trips. The New England Historic Genealogical Society has offered them since 1979. But mass marketing the ancestry trips to a wider audience is a logical next step for bigger companies looking to capture the ever-growing market.

There are no precise numbers tracking individuals who plan their own ancestry trips, but countries such as Ireland are hoping to capitalize on the market. The country’s official website has a dedicated page listing genealogical resources.

“You can learn things about yourself and your family that you never imagined,” the website promises. “Discover relatives you never knew existed, and find a warm welcome and a home from away from home in the land of your ancestors.”

On average, enthusiasts are spending between $1,000 to $18,000 to find their roots, according to consulting firm Global Industry Analysts. The same company also estimated that the global market for genealogical services and products will reach $4.3 billion by next year.

It’s not just baby boomers who are now delving into family history. Meghan Walsh, director of constituent relations at NEHGS has noticed that her contemporaries, who are in their 30s, are now more interested in her work, and they’re starting to do a bit of research on their own family trees.

Advertisement

“I think it’s coming out of the dusty library,” she said.

As genealogy steps out of the library and goes on to the Internet, into DNA kits, and ultimately on trips, the stories get infinitely more interesting.

“Sometimes you’ll find out that grandma was doing it with another man, and there’s a whole part of the family tree you didn’t know about,” Morgan said. “We tell people when they’re doing DNA tests or traveling for research that they should be prepared for anything.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and on Instagram @Chris_Muther.