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‘Heritage Travel’ Trend Poses Unique Challenges for Black Travelers

By Danielle Dorsey

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Heritage travel has emerged as a growing trend, with many tourists motivated to trace their family lineage as they travel around the globe. Last month, Airbnb announced that it’s teaming up with 23andMe, the biotech company that creates personalized genomics reports about family history and health, to incorporate heritage travel recommendations into user experiences. For some, this is made easy through self-administered DNA ancestry tests and well-kept family records, but for those who belong to the African diaspora, the process is rarely so straightforward.

In areas of the world where birth and death certificates or marriage licenses are not widely available or nonexistent, unconventional methods must be taken. At-home DNA kits can provide some direction, but because they draw conclusions based on their own available DNA data, the results are less precise for those who belong to disenfranchised groups.

Wild China founder Mei Zhang told Travel+Leisure that finding the specific locations of her client’s ancestors can “take a bit of triangulating” because of changes to recordkeeping systems. Zhang works with local historians and plays close attention to the details provided by clients that might provide hints into their ancestral background.

Atlanta resident Mark Dawson told the magazine that he ran into some hurdles when trying to excavate his African heritage, saying that sites like AfricanAncestry.com can offer some assistance but “because the records are so poor from the slave trade, it’s harder to make connections to where you’re from.”

Dawson began his heritage tour in South Africa and Ethiopia, where he was met with cultures and flavors that reminded him of his Southern roots. He was so inspired by these experiences that he decided to delve deeper and take another DNA test. He has plans to use these new results to piece together another African itinerary that will likely include Zimbabwe and countries in West Africa. “I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower—it’s beautiful,” he said. “But the things that were done by people in your past are just as magnificent. Maybe they’re not as known, but they are just as beautiful and important.”

Is there anything more uniquely American than going off to discover your homeland? “It’s absolutely on an upswing,” says Andrea Grisdale, an Italy specialist who says the southern part of the country is particularly in demand right now. In the developed world, access to thorough historical records and a robust pool of ancestry-kit participants can make it fairly easy to find hereditary links. Still, Grisdale and her team often employ unconventional methods to uncover missing connections and add context to family history. “We’ll go to homes for the elderly, explain what we’re doing, and speak with people who would be around our clients’ grandparents’ ages,” she explains. This often results in new leads they can pursue for clients.

In many parts of the world, it’s all about the unconventional methods. Documents like birth and death certificates and marriage licenses may be incomplete or nonexistent. DNA results from at-home kits may be less precise because there’s not as much data from which to draw conclusions.

So travel advisors have to find ways to put the pieces together. Zhang, born and raised in Yunnan province, says figuring out the exact town a client’s ancestors are from can “take a bit of triangulating” because of changes to the country’s romanization systems. (Nanjing, for instance, was once written as Nankin.) Recently, Zhang’s team tapped a local historian to help a Shanghai-born American visit the site of his grandfather’s former silk stocking factory. The client, who hadn’t been to China since he was three years old, supplied some details, including the road where the factory might have been. “The historian read this person’s documents and clearly knew where these roads were and where there was possibly a stocking factory,” Zhang says.

For one mother and child, a homecoming wasn’t so simple. Vermont resident Pamela McCann wanted to introduce her adopted Indian son, then-15-year-old Uttham, to his ancestral culture, so she provided Micato Safaris’ India expert Marion Miller with the name of the orphanage in Bangalore that she had used. Miller’s team tracked down the orphanage, which had since relocated within the city, and included it in a heritage trip McCann and her son took at the end of 2017. “Being able to bring him back to where he was born was almost as miraculous as meeting him,” McCann said. She adds that though Uttham was apprehensive about not being able to speak the language, he felt at ease with the kids he met.

Inspired by his initial experiences, Dawson recently took another DNA test and plans to use the results to plot out a trip focused on his own roots. Based on what he’s pieced together so far, it will likely include Zimbabwe and countries in West Africa. “I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower—it’s beautiful,” he says. “But the things that were done by people in your past are just as magnificent. Maybe they’re not as known, but they are just as beautiful and important.”

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Danielle Dorsey

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