Bookings up on heritage tours to Germany

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NEW YORK -- Ongoing efforts by German tourism officials, tour operators and other travel interests to spur heritage-related leisure trips to Germany are bearing fruit, with such bookings picking up steam just as new, relevant promotional materials, museum attractions and tour products come on line.

Two years after it began promoting heritage travel in earnest, the German National Tourist Office (GNTO) has published "Discover Your Roots in Germany," a five-page, fold-out brochure aimed at U.S. travelers of German ancestry, in partnership with a German operator and a California travel agency.

Publication of the guide comes as finishing touches are being put on the German Emigration Center (GEC) attraction to open Aug. 8 in Bremerhaven, historically one of Europe's most important emigration ports. A second, similar institution is to open in the nearby port of Hamburg in 2007.

The free brochure consists of a map of the country highlighting 24 points of genealogical interest, such as the GEC in Bremerhaven; three sample travel itineraries; background information and tips; and contact information.

Contacts include the GNTO in New York; U.S. travel agency Nonstop Travel, Torrance, Calif.; the German Embassy's German Information Center in Washington; and Research and Travel, the Oldenburg, Germany-based tour operator and genealogy research firm with which the GNTO launched the heritage-travel effort in 2003.

The brochure highlights itineraries such as the Migration Experience from northern German ports,  including Bremen, Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven and Hamburg; it also traces American roots in Potsdam, Berlin and Glaisin, to the east.

In central Germany, the guide focuses on Magdeburg, Radebeul and Muehlhausen, home to a bridge that was the model for August Roebling's Brooklyn Bridge in New York. 

In the south, the brochure points to Ulm, where Albert Einstein grew up, as well as Walldorf, where John Jacob Astor -- founder of the Waldorf Hotel in New York -- was born.

Other cities outlined in the brochure include Buttenheim, birthplace of Levi Strauss of dungarees fame, and Liblar, home to German-American patriot Carl Schurz.

Huge potential

Although ancestry-related tours to destinations such as Ireland, Poland and Scandinavia have sold well in the U.S. for decades, similar product to Germany has been scarce -- a surprise, given that nearly one in seven Americans claimed German roots in the 2000 census.

"Heritage travel to Germany is a large potential market for the [U.S.] travel industry ... [as] Germans are, in fact, the largest ethnic group in America," said Michaela Klare, regional manager of the Americas at the GNTO.

Two years ago, the GNTO decided to dip into that 43 million-person pool; it developed both a map and a Web site devoted to heritage for German-American travelers in partnership with Research and Travel, which in turn tapped Nonstop Travel as U.S. distributor for seven of its guided ancestry tours of Germany.

Now, all have partnered on the brochure.

"The new brochure is a start ... to target and develop heritage travel from the U.S. to Germany," said Klare.

It's been slow going, but the investment in time, money and effort is beginning to pay off, according to German-born Elisabeth Wilson-Schmitt, owner of Nonstop Travel.

"Slowly but surely, people are jumping on the heritage bandwagon," she said, noting requests for heritage information now come in daily, compared to monthly back in 2003.

"These things take time to develop; someone isn't just going to jump on a plane to look for his or her roots," Wilson-Schmitt added. "There's a lot of work and research to do first."

In fact, according to the GNTO, half the Americans who travel to Germany combine vacations with visits to relatives and friends.

(U.S. visitors accounted for 4.3 million overnights in Germany in 2004, a 15% increase from the year before.)

This year, Nonstop Travel, now an official partner of the GNTO, offers its own heritage product to Germany, in the form of customized FITs and family reunions.

"We used to have set departure dates for certain escorted trips, which we don't do anymore [because] it just didn't work out," said Wilson-Schmitt. The escorted itineraries and city-stay packages found online at Nonstop Travel's heritage-travel Web site at www.germanroots.org now serve only as samples.

Klare at the GNTO said the tourist board is looking to further grow the heritage marketing program.

"We welcome other partners from the U.S. travel industry to join us in our effort," said Klare.

To order a copy of the brochure, call the GNTO at (800) 637-1171. For more information, go to www.cometogermany.com, Research and Travel's www.routes.de or Nonstop Travel's www.germanroots.org.

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

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