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A Trip to Your Roots

Genealogy is trending—and providing a tantalizing reason to travel. 

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  • Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, picture
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    Photo: Joselito Briones/Stocksy
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    Vietnam, a popular travel destination in southeast Asia, draws many visitors to Ha Long Bay, which is dotted with green-topped limestone isles and ornate cruise ships called junks. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, tens of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees relocated to the United States. Now, Vietnamese Americans make up slightly more than 0.3 percent of the total U.S. population.
  • Kraków Cloth Hall in Kraków, Poland, picture
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    Photo: Gunter Kirsch/Alamy
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    Poland’s former capital, Kraków, is home to the largest medieval town square in Europe. Once used for regal ceremonies and commercial trade, the historic site outside the Kraków Cloth Hall is lined with cafés and hosts lively celebrations. Before WWII, some 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. Roughly 11 percent survived the Holocaust, with many fleeing to North America. Poland’s Jewish population numbers fewer than 4,000 today.
  • O'Brien's Tower on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, picture
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    Photo: ScenicIreland.com/Christopher Hill Photographic/Alamy
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    Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher rise up to 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. The highest point is marked by O’Brien’s Tower, built in 1835, from which visitors can see as far as the mountains of Kerry, 100 miles to the south. More than one in 10 Americans claim Irish ancestry, and genealogists treasure Ireland’s many parish records from the 1700s and 1800s.

Connection. That’s the drive behind roots travel. Also called homeland or legacy travel, genealogy trips combine the search for a personal relationship to the past with a traditional vacation.

“There’s a desire to see firsthand where our ancestors walked and farmed and ate and lived and raised their kids,” says Dallen Timothy, a professor at Arizona State University and editor of the Journal of Heritage Tourism. “People are turning to their own familial past as a way to find grounding in a tumultuous world.”

Genealogy travel is hot. Technology has made documents such as birth certificates and immigration papers easily accessible. DNA testing kits can determine people’s familial origins and link them with living relatives. It’s estimated that $4.3 billion will be spent on those products and services globally in 2018.

“Genealogy is a legitimate craze right now,” says A.J. Jacobs, author of It’s All Relative (click here for a Q&A). “It’s everywhere you turn—genealogy TV shows, genealogy DNA services, genealogy cruises.” In his quest to help build the world’s family tree, Jacobs discovered just how connected we all are. “It makes you feel like you’re part of something larger,” he says. “Much larger. Like 7 billion people.”

It’s especially popular in the United States—with its amalgamation of people from around the globe, separated from their roots—and among baby boomers, who have both time (the cohort is edging into retirement) and money. As a group, they’re the most affluent generation, and many can afford travel to their ancestral homelands.

A genealogical trip can be as simple as going to a place that’s significant for your family, such as seeking out authentic Ashkenazi dishes in New York City or visiting the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Others dig into research for more personal quests.

Arlys Veen, a genealogy hobbyist from Chino, California, visited Leerbroek, Holland, where her grandmother was born, and asked every person she met about her family name. That eventually got her an invitation to spend time at a local farmhouse with people who were likely her distant cousins. “We couldn’t prove we were related at the time,” she says. “But I’m working on it.”  

Read More: Your Distant Cousin A.J. | 5 Tips for a Deep Dive into Your Roots

This article was first published in Winter 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If you’re going . . .

AAA Travel can help you plan an itinerary to trace your ancestry, wherever that may lead you around the world. Visit AAA.com/travel or call (877) 835-2233.