Spotlight on: ancestral tourism

 | Save
Direct-to-consumer genetic testing has exploded in recent years. As consumers unlock their ancestry and connect with their roots, Click. explores the opportunities in DNA travel

In just over six years, genetic testing heavyweight has developed a DNA network of over 10 million people, making it the largest in the world, while 23andMe - the first company to offer DNA testing for ancestry - now helps customers trace their lineage to over 150 regions worldwide. While motivations behind testing vary, the market has undeniably sparked new interest in genealogy thanks to the surprising revelations test results can yield.

Jan Sortland, Owner of Norwegian Adventures combined his background in travel with over 30 years experience as a professional genealogist to help tourists track down their Scandinavian ancestors. In the last 17 years he’s observed a significant shift in the market. “We’ve seen huge development in DNA research technology and this testing has become relatively affordable. That has increased interest in genealogy, and I do predict that we’ll see a higher demand in future,” says Sortland.

However, while DNA testing may be fuelling interest, traditional methods remain key to uncovering the past. “We’ve been very much involved in the democratisation of genealogy by encouraging people to explore their family history and encouraging record holders who provide the paper trail to make that more accessible,” says Else Churchill, Genealogist at the Society of Genealogists. “We fought to make the censuses available and with those being digitised and sources going online, that’s been the big kick in the change in family history.”

Journey of discovery

According to VisitBritain, 4% of all visitors to Scotland in 2017 travelled to research their ancestry. Across the UK, stays of at least two weeks were most likely to include time for tracing family history and VisitScotland found that 23% of long haul visitors to Scotland were there to explore their heritage. 

Photo: George Hiles

Photo: George Hiles 

Churchill believes venturing to the home of your forefathers provides a physical experience that DNA kits can’t compete with: “You can hang the facts there. There’s something about standing in the same place - that shiver up the back of your spine. There’s an element of the tangible that makes it more exciting than just the records and that’s where the paper trail has the edge, over the general which is what the DNA provides.”

While DNA kits have been touted as a lure for millennial travellers, Churchill still sees more engagement from those who have time to really delve into the archives - typically older, retired individuals. Yet, Sortland believes there’s potential for mass appeal. He says: “We also see a lot of multi-generational families coming, where they are searching for their ancestors with grandparents, parents and kids all together - which is lovely. It’s a great idea and context for a family holiday.”

Interpreting the data

The results of DNA testing kits will give consumers a steer on where ancestors may have come from, but the analysis and application of this information often requires a more hands on approach and access to local records. Here lies an opportunity to engage with guests looking to learn more.

Since 2012, Andy Fraser has been the dedicated Tartan Butler at The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh. Having traced his own clan as far back as the early 13th Century, Fraser assists guests of the five-star hotel in tracking down their Scottish roots and the corresponding family tartans. At the end of last year the Tartan Butler Heritage Tour was launched, extending the experience with a tailored tour, exploring castles and ruins, archives and local inns to find physical links connecting the present to the past.

There is no substitute for the paper trail

The Sherbourne Hotel in Dublin hosts its very own Genealogy Butler - Helen Kelly. Guests are able to book a consultation with Kelly, during which she helps uncover their Irish ancestry, while immersing them in local history and culture. “As a professional genealogist, there is no substitute for the paper trail,” she says. “I see the value in providing professional interpretation of the information on family history documents, particularly in relation to Irish place names, as this can be a daunting task. Many of my clients have now connected with people in Ireland.”

Often, these services lead to deeply moving, emotional experiences - as Sortland has often found. “I will never forget one of our first clients whose grandmother came from Norway. I was able to find the house where she was born and the bed was still there fixed to the wall, so we could say with 99.9% certainty that this was the bed she was born in. He knelt by the bed and wept. That’s the heart of this kind of travel experience.”

You might also like to read:  What's the appeal of dark tourism?

Hero image: credit to Laura Fuhrman, Unsplash

What do you think of this page?


The DNA testing market has triggered new interest in genealogy, with D2C kits revealing the cultural heritage of millions of consumers
Guests on the trail of their ancestors should consult traditional records and local resources to provide a more detailed picture than general DNA data
Ancestry travel has mass appeal and provides an interesting context for multi-generational groups and long-stay visitors
In-house genealogy and history experts can provide bespoke consultation services for guests looking to build an ancestry experience to their vacation