Ancestral tourism, often referred to as genealogy tourism, can be defined as travelling to an ancestral homeland in order to connect on some level to a familial past. This type of tourist, where circumstances allow, traditionally spends time at a destination scouring through local libraries, national archives and genealogy centers.

However, in the past few decades it has become increasingly easier to conduct research online. Several institutions such as universities, the church of latter day saints and even the Irish government have made thousands of family related documents available online, for free or at a small charge. Emily Heinlen (2007) asserts that the digitalization of these documents have had a direct impact on the influx of genealogy tourists to destinations, taking Ireland as a case study. According to Heinlen, genealogy tourism to Ireland has substantially decreased as a result of the launching of three major genealogy websites:, launched in 1998; the Church of Latter-day Saints, launched in 1999; and the Ellis Island searchable records, launched in 2000. The Irish Tourism Board (ITB) did indeed publish that by 2004, the amount of genealogy tourists had plummeted to half the amount of 1999 (Heinlen, 2007).

Since then, the popularity of internet searches related to ancestry have increased dramatically, genealogy-centric websites and chat rooms have mushroomed across the web, and some institutions began offering free advisory services online. The ease of internet access has catalysed amateur genealogy to a popular past-time in the West (Bockstruck 1983; Marjanaa and Quintos 2001; Taylor and Crandal 1986, Heinlen 2007, Santos 2010).

A critic of Heinlen’s findings (McCartney 2007) argues that the author selectively chose statistics to prove her hypothesis -that digitalization is hurting the genealogy tourism industry- and that genealogy visitor numbers “should be looked at in the context of overall visitor numbers”. Nevertheless, the critic goes on to say that “Total visitor numbers for the period from 1999 to 2005 went up by over 18%”…  but that “the reasons cited for visiting Ireland has changed and genealogy is less often cited as the main reason”. The statements made by McCartney therefore seem to simply be restating what Heinlen had already concluded. The accusation of being selective with research is unfounded and appears to be caused by misunderstanding of terminologies: McCartney uses the fact that participation in cultural and historical activities increased by 8% between 2003 and 2005 to counter Heinlen’s observation that genealogical tourism had been fading. However such drastic changes in arrival numbers of tourists with ‘genealogy’ cited as a main motivation for their trip still points towards a downward trend. Unfortunately, the ITB has not published these figures beyond 2004.

Carla Santos of the University of Illinois recently published an article stating that genealogy tourism is one of the fastest growing niche markets today. The article however, is largely qualitative –based on 27 interviews with genealogical tourists- and focuses on motivations more than tourism arrivals and/or receipts. The interviews were conducted at the Historical Genealogy Department at the Allen County Public Library in Indiana, recognized as the largest U.S. public genealogical library and serving an annual visiting population of more than 400,000 (Santos 2010).

Santos concludes that [Western] society’s loss of ‘generational consciousness’, alienation, lack of authenticity, sense of meaningless existence, consumerism, and feeling of lack of identity spurs genealogical tourism as tourists seek out real roots, stories and identities. Another finding is that the fragmented ‘Diaspora of races, cultures and ethnicities’ of the United States long for authentic connection to their roots. The same logic can be applied to other traditionally immigrant-based societies such as Canada and Australia.

Worth noting is Santos’ definition of a genealogical tourist: ‘amateur genealogists who traveled at least 100 miles to specifically collect and examine information pertinent to their families’ history’. The article therefore gives good arguments on why the market will likely continue to grow, and delves into their underlying motivations, but cannot draw any direct conclusion about how the international genealogical tourism trend will really evolve.

Most likely, the interests of the modern consumer will contribute to a growing market, while the time spent there will be limited and traditional means of searching will continue to become less popular. The destinations will also likely become more diversified, and the arguments both for and against niche growth will be limited in scope until governments or regional tourist boards start to once again collect statistics.


Carla Almeida Santos (2010), on behalf of the Travel and Tourism Research Association. Genealogical Tourism: A Phenomenological Examination.
Journal of Travel and Research 2010.
Online version available at:

Cathy McCartney (2007). Letter to the Editor of First Monday peer reviewed journal. Retrieved September 20th 2010 from:

Emily Heinlen (2007). Genealogy and the economic drain on Ireland: Unintended consequences. Retrieved September 20th 2010 from: