In the summer of 2000, my brother and I found ourselves on a rickety train heading from Bucharest to the city of Braila in the eastern part of Romania. We were on our way to meet with some of our only living relatives on our father’s side of the family, including an elderly great uncle, his children and grandchildren.
The visit felt like a step back in time and into another world. Their very modest home featured a small vegetable garden and a large chicken coop that helped to feed the family.
Over lunch, it became increasingly apparent how totally different our lives and realities had become, how one family member’s decision to emigrate to the United States could so drastically alter the opportunities available to us economically, educationally and otherwise.
We shared stories about the relatives we had in common, and they showed us photos of our family. An image of our great uncle when he was younger revealed that my brother was his spitting image, an exercise in the amazing randomness of genetics.
For whatever reason, we had felt compelled to undertake the not uncomplicated journey to this remote region to find a piece of our past that could perhaps help us make better sense of our ourselves, of who we are and where we came from.
It is precisely this type of heritage exploration on which a growing number of people are embarking, thanks to DNA-testing companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe.
In our case, we relied on existing family ties to help us connect with our kin. But for many people who do not have access to living relatives or to historical family documents or who would like to go back much further than just two or three generations, better and easier access to DNA technology and advancements in genealogical research are providing them with information about their roots that they never had before.
Consequently, DNA tests are motivating a new and growing wave of heritage travel.
“We’ve always had customers who were interested in aligning with the stories that they’ve heard from growing up, where they’re from, even wanting to know and trying to connect with family,” said Robin Hauck, director of business development and partnerships at Go Ahead Tours. “Now that people have either done a DNA test themselves or have family members that have done a DNA test, they’re hearing about it, and they want to take that next step and get even closer to their own family in the place of their ancestors.”
People who have done a DNA test ‘want to get even closer to their own family in the place of their ancestors.’
As a result, Hauck said, heritage travel in general “has become much more popular.”
Last fall, Go Ahead Tours teamed up with Ancestry
.com to launch a line of heritage tours that combine Ancestry’s DNA analyses and genealogical research services with Go Ahead’s tour operations.
For many people, DNA-analysis kits from companies like Ancestry and 23andMe become the starting point in a quest to uncover genealogical roots.
Kyle Betit, travel program operations manager at AncestryProGenealogists, Ancestry’s genealogical research division, said, “After taking an Ancestry DNA test, people may discover in their results that they have ancestors from parts of the world they didn’t know about and be inspired to learn more by visiting those destinations.”
Betit said the number of people who have taken the Ancestry DNA test continues to grow, with more than 10 million clients now in the company’s DNA network. Ancestry also claims to have some 10 billion family history records and more than 100 million family trees in its archives.
One of the companies that has popularized DNA analysis, 23andMe, started selling its DNA kits to consumers in 2007 for close to $1,000 per kit. Now the DNA kits cost as little as $99 per person, and 23andMe’s database has grown to more than 5 million customers.
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