The Meteoric Rise of Ancestry Trips to Europe

Credit the lockdown. With the world’s citizens confined to their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans spent time delving into genealogy research. Interest in family history research is certainly not new — the success of TV series like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and the popularity of home DNA testing kits has fueled a more than decade-long trend—but the pandemic has spurred greater enthusiasm in finding family roots. As international travel restrictions are eased, this surging interest could translate into heritage trips, particularly to Europe. The thrill of tracing family lineage online pales in comparison to the excitement of in-person revelations, making a trip more meaningful by fostering a deeper personal connection with a destination.

Prior to the pandemic, European ancestry tourism was booming in popularity. Increasingly, hotels have rolled out special heritage programs and tour operators have developed personalized itineraries for genealogical tourists; even partnered with Cunard to launch a transatlantic “Journey of Genealogy” aboard the Queen Mary 2. For Americans with European family trees, the most popular destinations for such trips are Ireland, Italy, Germany, Scotland and Eastern Europe.

Ireland has seen impressive growth in the number of American tourists between 2013 and 2019, from one million to two million visitors. Of the American holidaymakers who traveled to Ireland in 2019, 54 percent claimed Irish ancestry (at least one in the party). In fact, some 35 million Americans today have Irish roots; the global Irish diaspora is vast as a result of successive waves of emigration over the centuries. Starting with Andrew Jackson and continuing to Joe Biden, 23 American presidents have claimed Irish ancestral origins. Indeed the Irish media optimistically reports that a “Biden Effect” could help boost the post-pandemic tourism recovery, inspired by the American president’s pride in his Irish ancestry.

“After the pandemic, people are looking to spend more quality time, make meaningful connections, and travel with purpose,” explains Alison Metcalfe, executive vice president, North America at Tourism Ireland. “Ancestry tourism really lends itself to that trend.”

Sometimes visitors even learn about relatives they didn’t know existed, making for a warm welcome. “When people get traveling again, we know they want to travel to familiar places and spend time with family in places they feel welcome and safe,” says Metcalfe. “Ireland certainly fits the bill.”

Tourism Ireland launched a new version of its website this year with a dedicated genealogy section to assist travelers in their research prior to their trip. “You can even employ your very own genealogical researcher,” says Metcalfe. “There’s also an Ireland Family History page on Facebook with Q&A sessions with experts.” Once travelers arrive in Ireland, numerous agencies and institutions offer in-person services. For example, both the National Archives and National Library offer free genealogical consultations, while EPIC Ireland—the interactive Dublin museum dedicated to Irish emigration—has an Irish Family History Center operated by the heritage experts at Eneclann.

"We have received many requests from guests wishing to explore their Irish heritage and it has perhaps become even more popular in recent years,” says Conor Shaw, hotel manager at The Merrion in Dublin. “We’re delighted to guide our guests in their journey alongside experts in the field.”

Ashford Castle, the landmark luxury hotel in County Mayo, works with local genealogy expert Ginger Aarons of Time Travel LLC who offers genealogy programs to guests. From a basic, two-hour session of Genealogy 101 to individualized itineraries, Aarons helps guests strategize their research and make connections.

“I meet clients at Ashford when requested and I usually get great results for them. I’ve conducted tours for family genealogy since 1998 across the entire island,” Aarons explains. “There has been a good increase in interest and with the pandemic, more time to delve into genealogy on their own. Help from genealogists like myself can allow clients to concentrate on more positive aspects by affording insights into the past… and an understanding of how their own actions may impact future generations. It can be a very cathartic experience!”

Likewise, Germany has seen an explosion in genealogical tourism. Today, approximately 44 million Americans claim German heritage, the largest such ancestry group according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In the 17th century, Germans were among the first Europeans to arrive in North America. This number peaked in the 19th century when Germans comprised the largest immigrant group—close to eight million arrivals.

The German National Tourist Board created a dedicated web portal with a multifold purpose: To illustrate big events in emigration history, showcase the famous German-Americans who’ve influenced American culture, and assist travelers with heritage research and building a custom itinerary with the Trip Planner tool. Amrei Gold of Germany Tourism explains: “We created this microsite since we see a trend of Americans seeking to know more about their roots in Germany. The interest is huge, and the ability to locate family roots increased with the development of research tools.”

Italy ranks as one of the most popular international travel destinations for American leisure travelers, with more than six million arrivals in 2019, and roots tourism is a strategic sector for the Italian economy. After all, there are between 60 and 80 million descendants of Italian emigrants worldwide, many of whom embrace the role of “ambassador” for Italian regions where they have family roots. There were an estimated 10 million such international “roots” travelers in 2018, representing diverse nationalities around the globe, and the Foreign Ministry aims to promote this trend with various initiatives including the 2019 publication of a guidebook series Guida alle Radici Italiane: Un viaggio sulle tracce dei tuoi antenati (Guide to Italian roots: A journey in the footsteps of your ancestors). 

“Ancestry tourism promotes lesser known Italy and is in line with ENIT’s strategy to help travelers discover Italian locations beyond the more famous destinations,” explains Giorgio Palmucci, president of ENIT (Italian National Tourist Board).

Jewish heritage travel is another important market, since the great majority of North American Jews trace their ancestry to countries in Central and Eastern Europe like Austria, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The JewishGen site is a popular, free resource for global Jewish genealogy.

“Sometimes it’s not an easy task to locate an ancestral village,” explains Radka Krizek of CzechTourism USA & Canada, “because historically the borders have changed so much in Europe… Ancestry travel is very much in demand—it’s an area we would like to develop more and plan to focus on in the future.” 

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