Who Do You Think You Are? Why DNA Travel is a Booming Business

faces of ancestors
faces of ancestors

Faces of our ancestors (Photo: Xuan Che/Flickr)

Most Americans, let’s face it, are mutts. Unless you’re a Native American, you certainly have ancestors who traveled across oceans to get here, your DNA swimming in a gene pool that stretches from here to who knows where. We are all fascinated with our heritage — perceived, invented, or assumed — but now there are ways in which we can physically discover our roots, through travel.

Take Laura Galloway. She was a successful media consultant in Manhattan, with two cats and an apartment in Chelsea. But when a work trip sent her off to Sweden three years ago, she felt an odd connection. Not only did many of the people in Northern Sweden’s Lapland area share some of her features — the snow-white hair, the almond-shaped eyes — they also seemed linked to her deep-down, in a way she couldn’t explain.

dna travel 23andme test kits
dna travel 23andme test kits

23andMe test kits (Photo: Nathan Siemers/Flickr)

She had 23andMe, the genetic testing firm launched by biologist Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google founder Sergey Brin, do a swab and scan of her DNA, and sure enough, the adopted Galloway discovered she was half-Sami, the oldest indigenous people of Northern Europe.

After multiple visits and countless reindeer-herding sessions, Galloway moved to Kautokeino to study the Sami language, and blog about her adventures at geneticnomad.com. “For me, the result of finding my origin through science was life-changing, and I believe the impact of this newly available testing has resonance for just about everyone, everywhere, and will have profound ramifications for cultures and societies around the world,” she writes.

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dna travel barack obama kenya
dna travel barack obama kenya

Barack Obama visits his father’s village in Kenya, 1987. (Photo: Rex USA)

Galloway may have taken her discovery to the extreme, but she’s part of a hugely growing trend of “heritage travelers,” people who plan trips with the intent of learning about their ancestral origins, near and far. President Obama was one when he went back to his father’s village in Kenya in 1987, writing about it in Dreams From My Father.

cindy crawford dna travel
cindy crawford dna travel

Cindy Crawford descends from Charlemagne. (Photo: Getty Images)

TLC has a wildly popular series on these adventurers, called Who Do You Think You Are, in which Gwyneth Paltrow learned her great grandmother was born in Barbados and Cindy Crawford discovered she was descended from Charlemagne.

Katherine Hope Borges, a genealogist in central California, is the director of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, an organization that teaches people how to interpret their DNA results. Not surprisingly, she is also a heritage-travel junkie. She recently returned from a Who Do You Think You Are? conference, where she swabbed anyone willing. She has also used a variety of companies to swab some 40 presumed relatives in America and confirmed which Bolts of South Carolina are her true relatives; the first match came just two weeks before her father passed away, in 2003.

“It satisfies my curiosity,” she says of her travels to family reunions in hopes of tracing her line to its origin. “Genealogical testing is evolving faster than computers. I’m 45 years old, so unless I get into an accident, I expect to see this all change in my lifetime.”

Should that happen, Borges has a stamp licked by her maternal grandfather locked in a safe, ready to find out if his British genes trace back to royalty.

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Family records can come in many forms. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bennett Greenspan is helping to make Katherine Hope Borges’s sci-fi fantasy a reality. His 15-year-old company, FamilyTreeDNA, sells simple “spit kits” that can determine origination in a few days — a process that is much easier than getting famous and going on national television. “We were the first company to provide commercial testing, and it’s becoming more and more mainstream,” says Janine Cloud, who is a genealogist by training but now helps coordinate events for FamilyTreeDNA. “Some people even take kits with them on their trips to confirm that others in their ancestral town are, in fact, related,” she says.

Unlike 23andMe, which delivers information related to health and ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA strips out the health sequencing and only provides users with ancestral information. Some clients use that information to chronicle their travels, even writing books; others are satisfied just to say that they are walking on the very ground their ancestors walked on. “If the test confirms that I’m from the Montgomery line, which it did in my case, I could go to that farm in Scotland and look around and go, ‘This is where my family was in 1585.’”

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The Ugadale Cottages at Machrihanish Dunes, Scotland. (Photo: Machrihanish Dunes/Facebook)

The Scots, in fact, have truly cracked the ancestral-travel nut. Many hotels have hired genealogists as full-time staffers, and Scotland has devoted this whole year to “Homecoming,” a marketing attempt to lure the Scottish diaspora back and discover its roots. Think you’re part of Clan Campbell? Then come one over to Campbelltown, in Argyll, where all real clan members will get an automatic 10 percent off of their stays (through December 31) at the Village of Machrihanish Dunes. On its grounds are two four-star hotels, a renowned 18-hole seaside links course, and lots of pubs to spin your great-great-grandpappy’s yarns.

That’s but one of hundreds of examples of how Scotland is capitalizing on a spike in interest in heritage travel. The Scotsman reported that businesses could expect to see $3.83 billion in additional revenue this year. “Ancestral tourism will be a key component of [2014]’s festivities, with many visitors looking to trace their ancestry or just soak up the atmosphere of their forefathers’ land,” Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney told the paper.

Related: 10 Reasons to Love the Scottish Highlands


Old family photos are precious links into the past. (Photo: Getty Images)

Deborah Irwin, of Ancestral Attic, began as a genealogical Sherlock Holmes, searching for her own roots, but then word spread and her business grew. The Carp Lake, Michigan-based travel agency eventually morphed into a full-fledged company when Irwin realized how many of her clients wanted that piece of paper to come to life. “Ten years ago, I was personally arranging maybe ten trips a year,” she says, “now we’re doing fifty to sixty trips, sometimes with twenty five or more family members.”

Ancestral Attic focuses on Eastern Europe and has sent clients to meet relatives in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Lithuania — basically anywhere that could have touched a Polish border in the last few hundred years. “We take travelers to churches, cemeteries, and villages, and we find their families,” Irwin says. “I want to give them the same feeling I had when I discovered my relatives in Golina, Poland — it was an Oprah moment!”

Irwin always tells traveling clients to bring pants with elastic waistbands, since Eastern Europeans love to feed their families. “Everyone wants to feel connected to the world in some way, but when you travel to your homeland, there is a real feeling of your ancestors smiling down you. It’s very personal, and it’s very moving.”


Ellis Island officials kept good records of everyone immigrating to America through its port; these records are available online. (Photo: Getty Images)

Linda Body agrees. As a genealogist and customer services manager for GenealogyFreelancers.com, she has received a lot of requests from travelers planning trips to their homeland, on the hunt for as much ancestry information as possible prior to the trip.

Ancestral travel has become a booming industry, especially in Canada, the United States, and Australia,” Body says. The reason? Record-keeping is historically good in those countries and many immigrants only arrived within the past few generations. Online sources and TV shows on the subject have peaked the interest of potential travelers, Body adds, making people curious about their own roots. “There is a real need of many to physically connect to their own personal histories,” she says. “Oftentimes it is a very emotional experience.”

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