When the Queen Mary 2 sails from Southampton to New York this November, it will be the umpteenth transatlantic voyage for the venerable Cunard cruise line, but a unique one nonetheless.
For the first time, Cunard is collaborating with Ancestry.com, the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company, to provide cruise-ship passengers with the opportunity to trace their family lineage while taking the same life-changing voyage many of their ancestors may have made generations before.
Cunard is one of several companies currently at the forefront of what’s become known as genealogy tourism, or roots tourism. Along with travel companies, tour operators and educational institutions, the cruise line is reaching out to that segment of the tourism market consisting of travellers looking to reconnect with their past. Sometimes you can go home again.
Billed as “A Journey of Genealogy,” Cunard’s QM2 voyage will depart Southampton on Nov. 4 and arrive in New York seven days later. While crossing the Atlantic in style, passengers will have full access to four genealogists from Ancestry.com, who will conduct onboard seminars and assist guests in exploring their own unique family trees. After arriving in New York, guests have the option of booking a two-night postvoyage program that includes a guided tour of Ellis Island and other New York sites of interest.
“We think this is going to be one of our more popular experiences,” says Josh Leibowitz, senior vice-president of Cunard North America. “It’s so personal, and so meaningful for so many people … It was a natural fit for us.”
Leading the program on the QM2 voyage is renowned genealogist Jennifer Utley, who oversees Ancestry.com’s research on the popular TLC series Who Do You Think You Are? Jon Lambert, director of client relations for Ancestry.com, says passengers should expect some surprises during the transatlantic trip.
“We’ll select six crew members and six actual travellers,” Lambert says. “And prior to the cruise, we’ll have all of them do DNA tests and submit a bit of background information about their family history. We’ll do some research and each day we’ll do a reveal. We always find something interesting.”
For some people, genealogy can be an obvious incentive when planning a vacation. After all, if you go back far enough, all of us come from somewhere else – and who wouldn’t want to see where that somewhere is? “It gives people a neat reason to travel, a purpose, a sense of discovery,” says Wendy Davis, owner of Zebrano Travel in Toronto.
Credit the rise in genealogy tourism to inexpensive genetic testing and the digitalization of personal data, such as birth, death and marriage records. Ancestry.com, which implores its online customers to “discover what makes you uniquely you,” has sold more than 10 million DNA test kits since launching in 1983. Currently, for around $100, the average person can send in a saliva sample and within four to six weeks receive an estimate of their ethnicity and the names of people with matching DNA. The snapshot of their family history is inspiring many to revisit the land of their forebears.
“In general, many people travel to find themselves, but the advent of affordable DNA testing, which is getting more accurate as time goes on, has spurred some to plan detailed trips based on their results,” says Sarah Enelow-Snyder, assistant editor at the online travel journal Skift, which gathers intelligence on the travel industry.
Of course, the truly adventurous genealogy tourist will go wherever that bloodline blueprint leads them. Ancestry.com has started its own travel program and recently teamed with EF Go Ahead Tours to create new genealogy-themed expeditions starting this fall in Ireland, Italy and German that will merge DNA testing and genealogical expertise.
How it works: Before the trip, each traveller receives a DNA test kit and goes through five hours of one-one-one research time with a genealogist from AncestryProGenealogists. That same genealogist later joins the group on tour to provide personalized context to each person’s family history. Travellers are also given free time to explore the specific ancestral setting where their relatives resided centuries ago.
“Whereas before you may have known that your family came from a small town in Sicily, now you can identify precisely where they lived and worked,” says Lael Kassis, EF Go Ahead’s director of product development
Also testing the genealogy-tourism waters is the venerable scientific and educational institution National Geographic, which has sold close to a million copies of its Geno DNA test kit in recent years. The international brand’s travel arm, National Geographic Expeditions, currently offers nearly 300 trips all over the world each year and a company spokesperson says the company is actively looking at adding genealogy tours in the near future.
Many popular travel destinations – particularly those that have experienced a large diaspora – are keenly aware of the roots-travel niche and what it can mean for their tourism industry. Research by Scotland’s tourism office in 2012 revealed that of the estimated 50 million people with Scottish heritage worldwide, at least one-fifth intended to visit the land of their ancestors. Two more recent surveys showed 34 per cent of Canadians travelling to Scotland cited ancestry as the purpose of their visit.
But for many genealogy tourists, it’s simply about paying homage to the past. Cunard’s Leibowitz says it’s important to learn as much as possible about our distant relatives because they were travellers, too, and in most cases they were far more adventurous than we ever realized. “I think we all owe gratitude to them and owe it to ourselves to learn more about it,” he says, “because it’s part of who we are.”
Guests who book the postvoyage Cunard tour by Aug. 31 can save up to 40-per-cent off a balcony cabin. Inside staterooms start at $1,199 per person.
Telephone 1-800-728-6273 or visit www.cunard.com.
EF Go Ahead Tours is offering five new heritage itineraries in Ireland, Italy and Germany. Prices vary by destination, starting at $4,199 per person and include hotels, some meals, guided sightseeing, a DNA analysis and pre-trip family history review with AncestryProGenealogists and an on-tour Ancestry genealogist.
Scotland has a wealth of resources for do-it-yourself genealogy travellers including a step-by-step guide on how to walk in the footsteps of your ancestors.
And depending on which clan you hail from, you can find suggested itineraries here.
Tourism Ireland also has lots of information online including a Facebook page that offers regular Q and A sessions with a genealogist.