Is DNA Travel the Next Biggest Trend?
We may be more virtually connected than ever, but how much do we really know about our identity? Thanks to advances in genetic technology and a more affordable entry point, DNA travel is in vogue. If you’ve ever been curious about your cultural heritage or wanted to trace the footsteps of ancestors, this is how to go about it.
20 May, 2020
Family trees have been used to chart our genealogical ancestry since the 11th century, but they've often been something of an inexact, long-winded and expensive science. That is until the Human Genome Project - a global, 13-year project to map the three billion base pairs of DNA in a man or woman - marked a watershed in the way we approach genetics.
Today, family trees have blossomed in the popular, public sphere. You can buy DNA-testing kits for as little as £49, with the resulting information being pinged to your inbox. By 2019, more than 26 million people had taken a home DNA test. Celebrities trace their roots on our televisions in programmes such as BBC One's Who Do You Think You Are?, ITV's Long Lost Family and Australian docuseries Go Back to Where you Came From.
Where digging into your history was once a pursuit for the elderly, it's now become de rigueur among a younger, millennial audience. According to a survey by ORC International, 76 per cent of millennials wanted to know more about their DNA compared to just 32 per cent of respondents over the age of 65. We want to know ourselves better.
Yet if we really want to understand where we came from, it makes sense that we should trace the footsteps of our ancestors physically as well as from behind a computer screen - and tour operators are making it easier to do so than ever before, with immersive itineraries that probe into customers' cultural heritage. Based on their results, adventurers may find themselves in a Cambodian jungle, a Scottish castle or a Brooklyn tenement. Where would your journey take you?
Is it really worth it?
Depending on your DNA results, your personal journey could take you to some of the most unexpected heritage sites or the most mundane locales. According to Ancestry, some of the most popular destinations for DNA travel include Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Germany and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Visit Scotland claims that in 2012, 213,000 trips were made based on genealogy travel.
Exciting destination or not, what's great about heritage travel is the chance to meet new people, to forge connections and expand - or perhaps cement - your idea of identity. Where our hunt for family history was once hampered by inaccessible records and documents, genetic testing makes it easier than ever to dig out our roots and establish an emotional connection with places and even people, be they long lost relatives or friendly faces we meet en route.
One of the most optimistic takeaways from DNA testing is the idea that our human experience is one that is interwoven across cultures and countries. There are no borders when it comes to genetics. When travel-and-lifestyle company Black & Abroad began a pan-African tourism campaign, the phrase "go back to Africa" was stripped of its negative connotations and used to celebrate diversity. By understanding and embracing our heritage, we strengthen the barriers against racism and xenophobia.
DNA travel can be affordable and easy
Thought that DNA testing and travel would be an expensive venture? Think again. Thanks to a new molecular engineering method, the prices for DNA testing have reduced dramatically, while the convenience of being able to take them at-home has made the whole process more accessible.
Once you've got your hands on your results, there are several travel agencies and tour operators such as Classic Journeys offering tailor-made trips based on your genetic history. Airbnb partnered with 23AndMe to provide recommendations for accommodation and activities after receiving customers' ancestry records.
Such a demand for bespoke journeys is part of a shift in the way we think about travel and what we want from our trips. Where five-star poolside getaways were once the epitome of luxury, we now crave personal, culture-rich experiences - and there are few things that can get more personal than the genetic material that makes us.
Do I need to use a travel agent?
While using travel agents, tour groups and personalised itinerary planners have their perks, there are ways to DIY your DNA expedition. Here's how.
1. Assess what you have
What better way to start a detective hunt than with what's already right in front of you? Look through what you have at home, including your old photographs, letters stuffed drawers, old diaries - you know the drill. Once you've collected what's most useful, talk to your elders and family members, or the people that knew them.
Online resources such as Ancestry are a great place to start building your family tree and accessing digitised records. Once you've done this, you may wish to broaden your search by visiting a public library or archive where birth records and the like are kept. Organisation will be a key weapon in your arsenal; make a folder - you'll thank us later.
3. Get a DNA test
Once you've made a start on the physical records, it's time to dive deeper with a genetic test. Of course, there's a plethora of testing services available; popular options include AncestryDNA and MyHeritage. A great part of digging into your family history is the chance to connect with far-flung relatives. Many DNA testers include an option to leave contact details available for potential matches in the future - look out for this service when you're choosing your kit.
4. Plan your trip
Pin down the ancestral destination that excites you the most and plan a trip, it's really as simple as that. Ahead of travel, research sites of interest and records that may be of use to you, perhaps pick up a few words and phrases in the native language and read around the heritage and traditions of the area. It's sometimes worth reaching out to locals social platforms to, for instance, ask about your family name, or see if there are any local forums dedicated to family history.
5. Bon voyage
We can't promise this will be an adventure of a lifetime, but taking the time to embrace a physical and emotional connection with a destination can help you to experience the place in a more profound way.