Ancestry travel is on the upswing

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Hohenzollern Castle, a hilltop palace in Germany’s Zollernalbkreis district, overlooks the countryside of the Swabian Alps.Florian Trykowski/German National Tourist Board

Dave Meyrick looked down at the vast valley in the shadow of Hohenzollern Castle, a hilltop palace in Germany’s Zollernalbkreis district. He could see the valley well from the vantage point – and even picture how his German ancestors must have seen it.

Meyrick, a veteran, found himself imagining what his forebears might have experienced centuries ago in their own battles: perhaps in this valley, to defend the castle.

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Before he started to dig into his ancestry as a hobby during the pandemic, Meyrick hadn’t known much about his family’s history. As he started to uncover more, he decided to book an ancestry tour. These tours are specifically designed for visitors who want to understand the lives of their ancestors abroad, with the help of professional genealogists who do local research. Meyrick’s results took him 8,000 kilometers from home, where he spent 24 days in Germany and Wales.

“They really did a bang-up job finding out information that I didn’t know,” he said. The personalized heritage tour brought Meyrick to the house where his grandfather once lived and a church where many of his family are buried. “That really got me, because my family never really talked much [about their past],” he said.

Meyrick is not alone: ​​The online genealogy giant Ancestry averages more than one billion searches a month, and its competitor Family Search garnered more than 200 million visitors last year. If the pandemic allowed many Canadians the time to dig deeper into their family’s past, now that travel restrictions are gone, travel industry experts say a growing number are retracing these newly discovered roots around the world.

Kyle Betit, a senior genealogist for Ancestry Pro Genealogists, says ancestry travel is a natural by-product of all that pandemic research. “We’ve moved beyond just looking at dates, places and names, and we want to know the story of the family,” said Betit. “To physically go to the place where all of this happened brings it to life in a way that is beyond just reading a research report.”

An ancestry tour operator can research and plan much of the journey around the types of experiences travelers are seeking. All genealogists need is basic family tree information and a sense of where their client’s family once lived, and they can dig up a wealth of data from historical records to shape heritage tours.

“I put a lot into it because everybody’s family becomes my family,” said Lisa Vogele, a professional genealogist and certified travel advisor who runs the heritage tour group Travel Your Tree.

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Businesses and pubs line the streets of Galway city, in Ireland’s county Galway.michael mccarthy/Tourism Ireland

Ancestry tour companies can also balance a client’s family history of exploration with more traditional tourism experiences in the country, such as learning to make traditional Japanese pottery in Kyoto or visiting an ancient wine cellar in Tuscany.

Some prefer to create their own ancestry trips. Christopher Young, who lives in Montreal, planned and researched his getaways to Scotland and Prince Edward Island. Pursuing genealogy of travel combined his love of travel and his newfound passion for ancestry. “The more you talk to people and tell people your story, the more they have to offer,” he said. “It just becomes this trail of clues that you follow,” Young said.

Bringing a family tree and some photos can help, too – especially if heading to a small town where locals may recognize a relative. One of Vogele’s colleagues led a tour in Northern Italy with a family who made customized “Searching for Nonna” shirts with a picture of their grandmother on the front. Because of the T-shirts, villagers came up to ask them what family they were from, and they ended up locating a second cousin by the end of the day.

“Leaving time for luck is so important,” Vogele said.

Searching into a family’s ancestral past is not always pleasant. Those with families who perished in the Holocaust or disappeared during the slave trade or residential-school eras often have more difficult experiences when learning about their family history. In some parts of Africa, where there’s limited access or even availability of historical records, genealogists often work with DNA testing and oral histories to retrace family lines.

Jenna Lemay works as an archive technician at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, where she works to connect residential-school survivors and families with their past. The center has Indigenous elders who help support survivors and families grappling with intergenerational trauma.

“Coming to the site is not a fun tourist trip, but more something that needs to happen in order for healing to take place,” said Lemay, who is also a genealogist. “It has a very different emotional impact on those who make the journey.”

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The Chateau Frontenac rises above the fortified walls of Quebec City, as seen from Levis, Que.ROBERT F. BUKATY/AP

It can be challenging to find information on Indigenous families in Canada – something Lemay found while researching her husband’s ancestors. Just one branch of his family had their last name spelled 10 different ways on documents, which made her research take much longer than it normally does for her clients. Not all records are digitized, either, and many from the late 1910s and 1920s were destroyed during a Second World War paper shortage, according to Lemay.

In Quebec City, heritage tour guide Xavier Chambolle has seen people brought to tears simply by hearing their family’s name said correctly. One day, he was starting off the introduction to a tour for an older American woman when she grabbed his arm, and told him to repeat the sentence he had just said. When he said his family’s last name, he began to cry.

“I was pronouncing her family name like her grandmother,” Chambolle said. “Her grandmother had been dead for decades, and it brought her all these memories.”

For many, coming home from ancestry trips was seen not as the end, but as the start of further familial exploration.

Meyrick considers his recent trip to Europe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but when it comes to exploring his family’s past, he’s only just begun. Next, he wants to dig deeper into his mother’s side.

“It’s the unexpected that has really been fascinating and, so far, it has been a great experience,” he said.

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