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A trip back to your roots

By BBC
By BBC

4/5/2012 1:00:55 PM -

Thousands of people flock to Salt Lake City each year, not for Utah's skiing or national parks, but to search through endless records of births, deaths and marriages at one the world's largest repositories of genealogy information on the planet.

There is a new breed of traveller focused on uncovering family narratives, as evidenced by the 1,500 visitors who visit the Family History Library every day. Run by the Mormon Church, it contains more than two billion names of the deceased, more than 2.2 million rolls of microfilm and 300,000 books.

Utah is not the only place focused on roots tourism. The newly opened £8.2 million Cumbria Archive Centre in England's northwest, with records dating back to the 12th Century, is banking on the boom. The fact that Cumbria is home to relatives of three former US presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson fuels interest among genealogy tourists there.

Genealogy tourism -- combining a trip away with a trip down memory lane -- is one of the fastest growing travel sectors, according to University of Illinois research. One million people, for example, visit Scotland each year, motivated by their ancestral activities and generating £730 million for the economy, according to tourism authority VisitScotland.

Popular with baby boomers, this type of authentic, real life experience is a backlash against the bubble-like environment of all-inclusive resorts, theme parks, gaudy tourist attractions and cruises, according to the University of Illinois.

The global television phenomena, Who do you think you are? has also sparked renewed interest in genealogy. The show features famous people unearthing secrets from their past. And the digitisation of billions of human records and ubiquitous web access has made researching family trees a lot easier and more accessible.

Before you book a flight to your ancestral holiday destination, it is worth researching your roots on sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org or Genes Reunited. Your country's national archives are also a good starting point. You can then arm yourself with names, death and marriage certificates, immigration and electoral rolls, as well as towns of origin. Before the latter half of the 20th Century people generally did not travel much, so it is easier to pinpoint names to places.

Also hone in on local museums, libraries, cemeteries and churches close to your family's home town where you can do your research. You will be disappointed if you book a trip to the Scottish borders if your relatives were from the Outer Hebrides.

You will also find centralised research options in big cities, for instance Edinburgh, Dublin and London can be good places to begin your search if you are completely starting from scratch. The ScotlandsPeople Centre has records that go back 500 years, while the National Archives in Dublin offers advice to genealogy tourists, then there's UK's National Archives in London.

Tourism boards in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and Canada also actively promote, document and assist people on the hunt for their ancestors, with links and resources for the ancestrally curious on their websites.

If you reach a dead end, or do not have the time or inclination to keep looking yourself, there are companies like Ancestral Footsteps. For a hefty fee you get your own personal genealogist and a tailor-made luxury tour after months of research into your family tree. You can include a chauffeur-driven car and a filmed documentary of your experience as well. While Ancestral Attic in the US is even more specialised helping you arrange a family reunion with unknown relatives, specifically in Eastern Europe.

Various genealogical societies also organise trips to archive centres, where census, birth, marriage and death records are stored.

Finally, do not underestimate your hotel. Edinburgh's Channings, for example, helps guests find a local genealogist. The Lodge at Doonbeg in Ireland's County Clare has a genealogist in residence if you are looking for your Irish roots there.

However, no amount of online searching, staring at microfilm or even a private luxury tour can match the actual discovery of, say, your great, great grandfather's headstone in the grounds of a tiny Devon chapel, or knocking on the door of that thatched village house that was home to your long-dead relatives. This is the thrill of genealogy tourism.

Genealogy trips require more planning than regular getaways. Plan at least six months in advance to track down ancestors and new relatives. And good luck.