The first generation of immigrants wants to survive, the second wants to assimilate, and the third wants to remember, the sociologist Marcus Lee Hansen wrote in 1938. The fourth, fifth, and sixth? Apparently they now want to go on a luxury vacation to visit the Welsh coal mines their ancestors crossed an ocean to escape.
So-called heritage tourism has grown into its own travel category, like skiing and whale watching. In 2019, an Airbnb survey found that the share of people traveling to “trace their roots” worldwide had increased by 500 percent since 2014; the company announced that it was teaming up with 23andMe, the DNA-testing service, to meet this demand, offering trips to clients’ ancestral homelands. Ancestry, the company behind the family-search website, has partnered with a travel agency. The governments of Germany and Scotland have websites devoted to heritage tourism. Conde Nast Traveller is all over this trend. In Dublin, the Shelbourne Hotel’s “genealogy butler” can research your Irish side, if you so please. The Conte Club, a boutique travel service known for its focus on privacy and members-only jet rentals, will take you and your partner on a week-long “DNA-mapped journey” starting at $35,000 (flights not included). Should you wish to go very far back in time, the agency can make that happen. Rebecca Fielding, the CEO, told me about one client who was obsessed with the idea that he had descended from Genghis Khan. DNA tests can’t possibly prove a connection that old, Fielding said, but the Conte Club was happy to arrange his trip to Mongolia.
Kyle Betit, the genealogist who runs Ancestry’s travel business, told me that his clients experience something much more “personal” and “deep” than what’s available to “the typical tourist.” Ancestry genealogists can create bespoke itineraries tailored to a family’s history, down to the villages or even the streets where they once lived. The company’s most popular destinations were Italy and Ireland. In 2023, it took 44 individual clients or groups on such voyages. This year, it’s offering two genealogy cruises.
Who takes such a trip? According to the Airbnb survey, Americans top the list, followed by Canadians and Australians. Those most likely to go are between the ages of 60 and 90—mainly retirees with cash to spare. Dave Richard Meyrick, whom Ancestry put me in touch with, is a representative example.
Meyrick is 73 and lives in Las Vegas, where he worked at the MGM Grand hotel and casino until his retirement. He recently came into a small fortune—not at the poker table, but after winning a lawsuit against the U.S. military. The Agent Orange that the Army sprayed over Vietnam when he was fighting there caused Meyrick to lose most of his eyesight years after he returned. The newly enriched man has no wife and no kids—“that I know of,” he told me, with a chuckle—so indulging in a decadent vacation was the logical course of action. The question was where to go.
He had recently been on an unremarkable cruise through the Gulf of Mexico when a free trial for Ancestry.com appeared on his screen in spring 2020. He learned that he was ninth in a line of Richard Meyricks. He found his paternal grandfather—who was born in Wales and fought for Canada in World War I—in mustard-gas records that might explain his grandpa’s weird cough. Meyrick had always assumed that his paternal grandmother’s ancestors were also from Wales; actually, they were German, from the medieval city of Heidelberg and the Alpine region of Bavaria.
Soon he got a promotional email from Ancestry: If he wanted to see where his father’s parents came from, the company was there to help. He replied, intrigued. Betit scheduled a video call. The team helped him book a trip to Germany, where his father’s ancestors were innkeepers on the grounds of a princely castle. The inn has been renovated, and is now the chic office of a finance firm. During a stop in Munich, Meyrick drank beer at Oktoberfest. He then went to Wales, where another branch of his father’s ancestors worked the mines and steel mills in a village that dates back to the 1600s.
He told me that the deterioration of his eyesight had changed his perception of traveling. He couldn’t see the sites or landscapes very well, but his genealogy helped him feel connected to the places he visited. At the Welsh church where his ancestors had been baptized, married, and buried, Meyrick met a local history buff, who told him a story. In the early 1700s, a villager with a habit of hiding behind stagecoaches to rob the wealthy messed with the wrong rich man, a big landowner, and was hanged. The historian was convinced that the unfortunate thief was among Meyrick’s ancestors. Could this fabulous connection be true? Ancestry’s genealogists weren’t able to confirm it, and Meyrick said that his source had seemed a little senile. Still, he assured me, the $50,000 trip was “money well spent.”
This year, he plans to do his mother’s side.
Heritage tourism may only be catching on among Americans now, but governments have been pushing it for decades.
After World War II, tourism was considered a major component of diplomacy. Marshall Plan funds were earmarked to build not just roads and city centers but also ski slopes and airports. The Eisenhower administration created the People-to-People Program, promoting international pen-pal networks and sporting events in hopes of uniting countries against the Soviet Union.
Europe welcomed America’s tourists, and tried to encourage more to come. Some hosted “homecomings”—festivals meant to lure the children and grandchildren of emigrants back to visit. Greece held one in 1951; Lebanon, in 1955; Sweden, in 1965–66. Ireland hosted annual homecomings starting in 1953. These campaigns were, in the words of the Swedish historian Adam Hjorthén, “the earliest coordinated attempts at adopting ancestry in the promotion of mass tourism.”
They were also a failure, as people didn’t go. The Irish homecoming—called An Tóstal, or “a gathering,” and sponsored by the founder of Pan Am Airways—went on for six years before a tourist-board report admitted that the word fiasco didn’t sufficiently convey how badly the effort had flopped.
For heritage tourism to take off, a few changes had to occur. First, plane tickets needed to get a lot cheaper. As the Pan Am founder, of all people, should have known, transatlantic flights then cost a lot of money—airfare from New York to London in 1950 was about $8,700 in today’s dollars. That year, only about one in 250 Americans went overseas at all. In 2019, at the pre-pandemic peak of traveling, this number was one in three.
Even if they had the money, travelers might not have chosen to spend it on connecting with their homelands. For a long time, genealogy struck many people in the United States as elitist. Most European settlers, the historian Russell Bidlack wrote, “had escaped from a society where the traditions of inheritance and caste had denied them opportunity for a better life.” Genealogy was for people obsessed with nobility, or for WASPs living off borrowed glory.
This began to change in the 1970s and ’80s, when genealogy became cool. The publication of Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 novel about a seven-generation lineage, starting with a man sold into slavery in Gambia and ending with an American descendant not unlike the author, was a turning point. The book topped the New York Times best-seller list for more than five months and inspired two TV adaptations and eventually a whole genre of trace-your-ancestry reality shows. Genealogy was no longer just a hobby for pedigree-loving Europeans but became a tool for everyone, including marginalized groups, to understand their past.
Still, genealogy was hard work, at least until the advent of the internet in the 1990s made public records accessible and searchable. Infobases, a seller of floppy disks with genealogy databases catering to Mormons, who have a particular interest in the subject for theological reasons, purchased Ancestry, then a local publisher and magazine specializing in genealogy. Ancestry.com went online in 1996. By the mid-2010s, DNA testing was mainstream—packaged, commoditized. The tests convinced people that the connection they felt to the place of their ancestors was “really real,” as Naomi Leite, an anthropologist at SOAS University of London, put it to me. An American could now possess hard evidence that he was 12.5 percent Greek.
But when that American goes on a vacation to Santorini, what exactly is he hoping to find?
Heritage is the name Americans give to the past when they realize they’ve already lost it. They want to claim it back. And when they finally go to these places where they had never been, travelers say they are “returning.”
This mode of traveling across space and time is ultimately a journey into the self—the reconstruction of a grand story that started long ago and ends with you. It provides order and meaning to travel that might otherwise seem arbitrary, while still providing plenty of choices: After all, the further you go into your family tree, the more branches you may have to pick from. Solène Prince, who studies heritage travel in Sweden, told me that people tend to focus on the lineage that they view as most “socially desirable”: “Americans and Canadians like to be Swedish,” she said. “It’s progressive.”
A segment of this industry targets Black Americans. Ghana, from which many enslaved Africans were sent to the New World, had its own homecoming—a “Year of Return”—for Africans in the diaspora in 2019. One and a half million people visited the continent that year, Ghana’s tourism department reported. But most heritage tourism tacitly serves white Americans. (Ancestry mentions Ghana in a list of possible Personal Heritage Journeys, but when I asked if anyone had taken advantage of that trip, a company spokesperson said not yet.)
Genealogy may be the product of painstaking research, but it’s also a fantasy, about who we are and who we’d like to be. Many Americans want to be something else: “Time and again, I have heard genealogists be very disappointed to learn that, in fact, they’re all white,” Jackie Hogan, the author of Roots Quest: Inside America’s Genealogy Boom, noted once in an interview. “If America is a melting pot, this is people wanting to unmelt it and find what makes them special,” Leite, the anthropologist, told me.
But even if white Americans think they want to be something other than white, when it comes time to travel, they mostly want to go to Europe. Fielding, of the Conte Club, told me that the top destinations for its DNA trips were all in Europe. Even when a DNA test uncovers ancestry outside this part of the world, clients tend to ignore it and “put their money where their comfort zone is”—meaning travel to the places they might have gone to anyway.
Reading testimonials from Ancestry travelers online, I got the impression that a big appeal of a heritage trip is marveling at how bad struggles were in remote places compared with the safety and comfort of present-day America. “I am grateful for them leaving and everything they went through, so we could have the life we have,” one traveler said after visiting the Italian sulfur mines where their grandparents once worked. “I think it made me appreciate not only them, but the sacrifices they had to go through so I could live comfortably here in the United States,” said another one who went to Ireland. There’s a hint of smug pride behind this gratitude exercise.
But at least one traveler came away with a more disquieting narrative, according to Joe Buggy, one of Ancestry’s genealogists. He had an American client who learned, while visiting his ancestors’ quaint little village, that everyone in town believed his grandfather had committed a murder there. They all thought he’d fled to Australia. Maybe that’s why Grandpa never talked about Ireland.