Scotland courts heritage seekers with Web site

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NEW YORK - VisitScotland is launching a major drive this fall to turn the estimated 11 million Americans of Scottish descent on to the joys of heritage travel.

This new courtship of Scottish-Americans began with the recent debut of a Web site - www.ancestralscotland.com - and will continue with an "aggressive" public relations and advertising campaign as well as the creation of hotel and tour packages with operators, according to tourism officials.

"Through ancestralscotland.com  we have a tool for Americans to research their Scottish roots and hopefully to attract them to come visit Scotland," said Michael Seantlay, deputy director of VisitScotland.

"This is the first time we've been able to use genealogy in this smart way."

The tourism board will spend $500,000 on the heritage travel campaign over the next year.

U.S. tour operators and travel agents selling Scottish product hailed the move, noting Scotland has lagged behind neighboring destinations - such as Ireland and Scandinavia - in tapping into a burgeoning ethnic and heritage travel market.

Claire Schoeder of Virtuoso member agency Century Travel in Atlanta said she's noticed VisitScotland hasn't promoted roots travel as much as other tourism boards have.

But she added that interest in heritage travel also traditionally has been weak among Scots on this side of the Atlantic.

"It's my strong belief that Scottish heritage is so caught up in being a part of the larger British legacy that it's been lost a little bit," said Schoeder, a certified VisitScotland ScotsMaster specialist for four years.

"Scottish-Americans are just now coming to recognize their own separate ethnic identity."

In that they mirror their distant relations in Scotland, where the separatist Scottish National Party wields increasing power; use of the Scots Gaelic language is up; and the first local legislature since 1707 opened in a new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh last month.

John Murray, president of operator the ETM Travel Group in Westport, Conn. - which has long offered heritage product to Ireland - said the move to market roots travel to Scottish-Americans is "definitely something we'll be interested in."

For its part, VisitScotland estimates that one of every five U.S. visitors to Scotland already visits to research family roots.

But the tourist board would like to grow those numbers because heritage travelers have proved to be among the most lucrative groups, said VisitScotland's Seantlay.

"Our research shows people coming to research heritage spend more as they go about looking into their ancestry, but they also spend a fair amount of time doing other things," he said. "And American visitors, in particular, tend to spend more money than other travelers."

Although U.S. visitors constitute 2% of all arrivals, they account for 19% of heritage visits.

At present, a total of 260,000 visitors per year - of which 30,000 are from overseas - tour Scotland in search of family roots; Seantley said he hopes to more than double those figures.

It's not an unreasonable goal: Scotland has only 5 million people, but some 50 million worldwide claim Scottish descent.

"We think eventually we can grow this to represent 8% of our overall tourism expenditures, or something like 600,000 visits," Seantley said, adding VisitScotland wants to grow its $8 billion per year tourism industry to $10 billion to $12 billion.

Plans designed for clans VisitScotland's www.ancestralscotland.com site features itineraries themed around the history of nine of the most famous Scottish clans - Gordon, MacDonald, MacGregor, Mackenzie, Morrison, Scott, Sempill, Sinclair and Wallace - as well as a host of genealogy links, resources and tips.

Two search engines on the site can comb the Web by clan, surname or placenames; searches by "sept" - or clan subdivision - are not yet available.

The site also offers a host of other features, including news, events, travel information and an online bookstore.

Links to actual escorted-tour content on the site are limited, of course, because heritage travel is, by its very nature, a customized, individual product.

Murray said he will likely sell individual heritage research as an add-on to more general stays.

"The itineraries are going to end up being fairly specialized, and what travelers do in Scotland will depend on what they've found in their specific searches," he said. "It will be a very individual thing."

Operator Scotland Calling (www.scotlandcalling.com) offers a package that includes 10 hours' genealogy research before departure on a customized family history vacation, with bed-and-breakfast accommodations and chauffeured transportation. Priced from $2,995 per person, land-only, the deal's commissionable at 10% and up.

Kristin Hunnibell Kennedy, owner and manager of Perfect Journeys Travel in Rehoboth, Mass., welcomed the new site as a valuable addition to her customer-service tool kit.

"In the past, if I've had a client interested in family research, I had to get in touch with town officials and historical associations to find out information," said Kennedy, a ScotsMaster who said Scotland accounts for half of all her U.K. bookings. "This VisitScotland site will be good for me in terms of having a central place to find all those contacts."

Schoeder of Century Travel agreed, noting the site aided her in tracking down the obscure Scottish name of Arbuckle.

"I didn't know a lot [of people] associated with the name, and when we were planning a client's day trip, I was able to find places associated with that name, and it worked out quite well," she said.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to[email protected].

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