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Where You're From, Where You're Going

Is travel in your blood? You might not be a serial jet-setter, but the answer is probably still yes. We often forget it, but all of us come from a long line of earth-dwellers who crossed borders and settled in new places. Travel is written in our DNA.

As more people recognize their international origins, a new kind of tourism has emerged called heritage travel. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, heritage travel is travel with the intent to understand the past, present, and future of a land and its people. Traveling with an understanding of your personal history builds a connection that can tie you to locations and cultures different from the one you grew up in.

However, not all of us have well-developed family trees. That’s why many heritage travelers are taking advantage of the latest technology to find out what’s hidden in their DNA. Genetic testing, or DNA testing, is more popular than ever because of the availability and affordability of at-home tests. To complete an at-home test, you send a saliva sample or swab to companies like AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritageDNA, or FamilyTreeDNA.

There are different benefits of each at-home test, though no test is exact. AncestryDNA, which connects to Ancestry’s genealogy database, might be a good choice for people who want detailed documentation on individual ancestors, though the service costs a monthly fee. MyHeritageDNA, a smaller company, offers their more limited genealogical database for free. Their DNA test is also the cheapest of these options. On the other end of the spectrum, FamilyTreeDNA offers more detailed data and less common tests on maternal and paternal DNA. Meanwhile, reviewers report that 23andMe is the most user-friendly tool, and it also offers a highly rated health analysis feature. Regardless of extra benefits, all DNA companies will analyze the data from your sample and send back a report on your ancestral heritage or ethnic background.

The results may surprise you, even if your heritage is well documented. With so many ancestors on the tree, branches up in knots, and roots buried deep, it’s natural to lose track of some unplumbed aspects of your ethnic identity. Usually, results look like a pie chart of ethnicities that make up your heritage, a map with countries your ancestors hailed from, or even a list of chromosomal identifiers that mark you as part of an ethnic group. Any of these can be a good place to begin learning more about a location. Once you know more, you can use that information and plan to experience your ancestral roots firsthand.

Does a newfound ethnicity grant you dual citizenship? Of course not. But even an imprecise knowledge of your personal history can grant you a greater appreciation of the wider world. Those who travel to their places of heritage find a memorable vacation. The history impresses them more; landmarks might be places their ancestors stood, and traditional food might be what their relatives ate every day. This feeling of connectedness can help you feel more comfortable interacting with locals in a new environment, since they are not so different from you!

In fact, travel heritage can have a positive impact on economies and the environment as people visit places that are less trendy and more personal. Traveling to a heritage country often supplements the economy of less tourist-oriented nations and leaves more space for natives in overly visited locales.

Heritage travelers might even return with a different perspective of their own home. At some point in the past, an ancestor made this very transition from native country to new place—a transition the heritage traveler can see with fresh eyes. Heritage traveling is walking in the footsteps of the people who came before and learning to love the places that were in their hearts and in their blood.

By Hannah Johnson