Heritage Travel: Connecting With Your Family’s Past

AncestryDNA, Lifestyle
4 October 2016

For many people, vacation means relaxing on the beach or an all-you-can eat buffet on a cruise. For others, holiday travel involves connecting more deeply with their destination through their family stories.

As described in leading publications such as The New York Times, they’re joining in the increasingly popular practice of “ancestry tourism,” in which people interested in their genealogical roots visit sites that mark a turning point in their family histories.

The most common destinations for ancestry tourists include Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Germany and Eastern Europe.

But if you’re interested in traveling to your ancestral home, it makes sense to confirm which lands those are before you pack your bags. To do that, consider AncestryDNA, a simple DNA test that can tell you how much of your genetic history comes from one of over 350 regions.

Once you’ve confirmed your ancestral roots, it’s time to walk in your ancestor’s footsteps. Here’s what some regions offer to ancestry tourists.


Loch Hourn, Scotland.

Scotland may best embody the trend of ancestor tourism, both in terms of visitor interest and the efforts of countries to encourage it.

In 2012, VisitScotland, the country’s tourism board, investigated the present and future of ancestry tourism there and discovered that 50 million people worldwide have Scottish ancestry.

Those folks made about 213,000 trips a year to Scotland to take part in ancestral research.

But VisitScotland also estimated that about 10 million people with Scottish ancestry are interested in visiting Scotland to find out more about their ancestry and that up to 4.3 million could be encouraged to visit in the next five years.

Scottish emigration to the United States peaked in the late 19th century, but the process began with the Highland Clearances, an effort by the British begun in the 1740s to break the power of northern Scottish clans who had tried to restore a Scottish king to the British throne.

Persecution of Scottish culture came with repressive land measures that drove Scottish farmers off the highlands to coastal tenant farms. By the 1840s, however, falling agricultural prices and the potato blight — more famous in Ireland but deadly, too, in Scotland — forced an exodus to what is now the United States, Canada, and Australia. In 1853, half of all emigrating Scots chose to settle in the United States.

Much of the depopulation occurred in Scotland’s northern islands, such as Skye, Mull, the Long Island. Today, Scotland encourages descendants of those emigres to return to those ruggedly beautiful sites, with tourism packages such as the “Clan Itinerary,” which guide visitors to places associated with their clan names.


Cliffs of Moher, Ireland.

Between just 1845 and 1851, more than 1.5 million people emigrated from Ireland. That mass departure came at a time when the Irish population was only about 8.2 million, and when 1 million people were dying or had already died of starvation due to the infamous potato blight, the fungus infection that wiped out the nation’s most important food source.

By 1860, more than 4.5 million Irish had arrived in America, making up over a third of all immigrants to the United States.

Now, Ireland is hoping that some of their descendants will return. As in Scotland, Irish tourism officials have published guides to prospective ancestry tourists, providing advice on how to research Irish ancestors.

Cobh, a town in County Cork, for example was the most important departure point for Irish emigrants. In total, 2.5 million people set sail from Cobh between between 1848 and 1950. Today visitors can tour the Cobh Heritage Centre.


Hohenzollern Castle, Germany.

According to recent census data, Germans are the largest ethnic group in the United States, although assimilation — fostered by anti-German sentiment during the World Wars — has broken many connections to the Old Country.

The German tourism board, however, is hoping to revive those links, at least for ancestry tourists. It has created websites with links to German genealogy resources and devised several itineraries to help people recreate, in reverse, the journeys of their emigre ancestors.

One itinerary focuses on the cities of Bremen and the smaller, nearby harbor city of Bremerhaven. More than seven million emigrants to the Americas left Germany through Bremerhaven, and between 1850 and 1880, 38 percent of all emigrant ships arriving at Atlantic and Gulf ports in the United States at that time were from Bremen and Bremerhaven.

In Bremerhaven, the German Emigration Center recreates the 19th century immigrant experience and features two international databases that let visitors research ship manifests and other genealogical records.


Warsaw, Poland.

For travelers of Jewish heritage, travel to Poland comes with different motivations and rewards than many other types of ancestry tourism.

Jews have lived in Poland from the medieval period, and they flourished under centuries of relative freedom and equality. By the beginning of World War II, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, and nearly a third of Warsaw’s population was Jewish.

But the Nazi Holocaust, followed by Communist anti-Semitism, left Poland with a Jewish population of just 15,000 to 20,000 people.

Today, however, Poland is attempting to revive Jewish life and culture while attracting ancestry tourists seeking to understand the lives of their ancestors and the unimaginable cruelty that ended so many of them.

In Warsaw, Nazis destroyed much of the city in their 1939 invasion that started World War II and in retaliation for the 1943 and 1944 Polish uprisings. Since then, however, Poles have recreated the city’s Old Town, and the Polish tourism board has created a walking tour of remaining Jewish sites and memorials.

They include a remaining wall of the Jewish ghetto, which held 500,000 Jews crowded into a few city blocks. The Nozyk Synagogue is on the tour, after being restored and returned to a place of Jewish worship with the assistance of an American cultural group. Elsewhere in Warsaw, the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, opened in 2013, tells the 1000-year history of Jews in Poland.

In the medieval city of Krakow, which largely survived World War II intact, several more synagogues remain open, and a small Jewish district serves traditional Jewish recipes.

Every June and July, 50,000 people come out to take part in the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture, held since 1988 in the former Jewish district of Kazimierz. But not far outside the city, the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp reminds ancestry tourists — and the whole world — of the darkness that curtailed the culture that Poles now carefully attempt to preserve and grow.

Where in the world will you go to walk in your ancestors’ footsteps? Start your journey with an AncestryDNA test