Photo by John Hernandez
Photo by Seqoya/Shutterstock
Poland is a popular destination for heritage travel.
Technology has made finding out more about our roots easier than ever. That has led to a surging number of travelers pursuing their ancestral trails in search of the people and places that define their past.
Maybe a family member or a co-worker got it for you as a gift. Or you found yourself shopping online or in a pharmacy recently and pulled the trigger to get one for yourself. However you got there, you are now staring at a DNA test report that sheds some light on where you are from and, increasingly, who you are related to.
For a growing number of people, those results are being converted into real and meaningful journeys into their ancestral past. For John Hernandez, it was precisely such a journey that found him and his immediate family piled into a van and driving through the northern Spanish countryside last year, on their way to the town of Tarna, population 100, in search of his great grandfather’s home.
“That was a really cool experience,” said Hernandez, whose family immigrated to Cuba from Spain, and then to the United States from Cuba, transitions that had left many gaps in his family history. “I got to see the house of my great grandfather. I got to touch the walls, the wooden door . . . we got to see the church where he was baptized.”
The 26-year-old Hernandez, who lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, was able to find the precise location of his great grandfather’s home thanks to a genetic match that was made through Ancestry after he completed a DNA test kit.
“All of a sudden I get this match. Her name is Dora. She’s from Spain and . . . we started matching family trees,” said Hernandez. Through Dora, Hernandez was able to locate a couple of distant cousins in Spain who helped facilitate the Tarna visit.
As a growing number of people submit their DNA samples for genetic analysis to companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, there is also the growing opportunity to find potential DNA matches with long-lost relatives.
One of the things Ancestry is seeing more of is “people are using their match list and when they go to places they are connecting with cousins that are still in the old country. And those cousins will go and orchestrate these huge family reunions where everyone will come together. That has been super powerful,” said Ancestry’s director of research, Jenn Utley.
DNA test kit takers can choose whether or not they want to be on these “match lists,” which means they make themselves available to be contacted by relatives with whom their DNA matches.
The likelihood of matches is growing because of the surge in popularity of the DNA test kits themselves. “It’s pretty phenomenal,” said Utley. “We process more than 10,000 kits every week.”
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In the seven short years since launching AncestryDNA, Ancestry’s genetic analysis arm, the company’s DNA database has grown to 20 million people and continues on a strong growth path, according to Utley. The fact that the kits commonly sold by Ancestry and by the other main player in the marketplace, 23andMe, now go for as little as $100 each, has also helped fuel the explosion in interest.
So, what are people hoping to find out? It’s usually something a bit different for everyone, said Utley: “Someone wants to know how Irish they are, and someone [else] is looking for a long-lost cousin or sister. And some just felt like they didn’t know enough about their family, and this is one of the easiest ways to learn something quickly.”
Depending on how deep people want to dig, the options vary. For some, maybe the DNA test kit results are enough information for them. Others may want to search for DNA matches and find out more through those connections. For people with access to extended family or historical family documents, the DNA kit may simply be part of a much more in-depth investigation into family stories that go back decades, if not centuries.
There is the option to choose additional roots research services through Ancestry or other websites such as MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and AfricanAncestry. There’s also the U.S. Census Bureau; the National Archives (the federal government’s database of U.S. military records, naturalization records, and more); the Ellis Island Foundation; FindAGrave.com for cemetery records; state and local records; and Social Security death records — among many other research tools.
Regardless of what people find out, one thing that has become obvious is the strong connection between the findings and a desire, for many, to physically travel to locations that have become a part of their personal story through these journeys of discovery.
Because of that strong connection, heritage travel is on the rise.
For Ancestry, that meant forging a partnership in 2017 with Go Ahead Tours to help customers retrace their roots. Go Ahead’s Ancestry Tours include an AncestryDNA kit, a family history review prior to the trip, and an Ancestry genealogist who accompanies the tour groups to help answer questions about participants’ heritage.
In 2019, homesharing heavyweight Airbnb got in on the heritage travel trend too after noticing a huge surge in interest in this type of self-discovery trek.
Since 2014, the number of travelers using Airbnb while on journeys to trace their roots increased by 500 percent, according to data Airbnb compiled based on guest reviews containing keywords related to DNA and heritage travel.
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Consequently, in May 2019, Airbnb partnered with genetic test provider 23andMe to make converting DNA test results into a tangible trip a more seamless experience. On 23andMe, once customers receive their ancestry reports, they will be able to find Airbnb homes and experiences in their native countries. Conversely, Airbnb now has dedicated pages that correspond with 23andMe’s geographic groupings, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America (there are 10 groupings total) so that travelers coming to Airbnb’s site will be able to easily plan their heritage trip.
The most popular places for heritage travel, according to 23andMe, are the United Kingdom, Italy, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Poland, mainland China, Spain, Nigeria, India, and Russia. The top 10 origin countries for heritage travel are the United States, Canada, Australia, Mainland China, the United Kingdom, France, Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan and Brazil.
Beyond the partnerships between Airbnb and 23andMe and between Ancestry and Go Ahead Tours, there are plenty of other travel companies and travel agents that have gotten into heritage travel due to its rising popularity. Their services typically range from offering more general heritage tours to getting much more involved in helping to unearth information and to make relevant connections on the ground.
DNA Journeys, for instance, is a travel agency devoted entirely to converting DNA test kits (its services include the kit) into customized heritage trips. A division of Your Travel Services, an agency with offices in South Carolina and Texas, DNA Journeys provides the kit, helps with additional genealogical research, and then builds the trip.
Family Tree Tours is an agency based in St. Louis that specializes in heritage tours to Ireland, Germany, and Italy. The company has partnered with local genealogical experts to help execute the tours, which can be more general, if clients don’t have too much detail about their past, or more specific, if clients have information related to a particular place where they know their family lived, for instance.
Some tour companies have divisions devoted to heritage travel as well, such as Classic Journeys, which provides a list of suggested group tours and also offers customized tour options for heritage trips.
There is plenty of skepticism surrounding DNA test kits and DNA databases, namely regarding privacy concerns, and some of it may rightly give people pause. But for some people, like Hernandez, what ultimately resulted was a very real and very human encounter.
“One of the most touching moments was [regarding] my mom; she lost both her parents in 2005 and that was really hard on her,” recalled Hernandez, about his family’s trip to Spain. “And her immediate family is pretty small. All of a sudden she’s meeting all this family that’s pretty close to her. She was crying when she first saw them.”
This article originally appeared online in July 2019; it was updated on June 21, 2021, and again on June 24, 2021, to include current information.
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