Heritage travel’s new urgency

The pandemic travel pause has renewed interest in meaningful journeys that retrace family roots.

VILNIUS, Lithuania — The juxtaposition could not have been more stark.

There I was, in a beautiful European capital, with blue skies and a perfect breeze, walking along winding cobblestone streets, stopping to sample local beers at bars where patrons spilled out onto pedestrian alleyways.

The history of those cobblestone streets, however, could not have been uglier. Vilnius once had a thriving Jewish community that was almost wiped out during World War II. The city has chosen not to forget. What was once the Jewish quarter of its picturesque old town serves as an open-air museum to that community, with murals and statues commemorating those lost and monuments marking the sites of synagogues and houses.

Throughout Vilnius, an art project called Walls That Remember pays tribute to the memory of the city’s Jewish community, which was nearly eradicated during World War II. (TW photos by Johanna Jainchill)

Throughout Vilnius, an art project called Walls That Remember pays tribute to the memory of the city’s Jewish community, which was nearly eradicated during World War II. (TW photos by Johanna Jainchill)

Throughout Vilnius, an art project called Walls That Remember pays tribute to the memory of the city’s Jewish community, which was nearly eradicated during World War II. (TW photos by Johanna Jainchill)

The Sugihara House, the former home and office of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews by issuing visas during World War II. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

The Sugihara House, the former home and office of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews by issuing visas during World War II. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

The Sugihara House, the former home and office of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who saved thousands of Lithuanian Jews by issuing visas during World War II. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

A street in what was the Kaunas Ghetto, established by the Nazis during World War II. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

A street in what was the Kaunas Ghetto, established by the Nazis during World War II. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

A street in what was the Kaunas Ghetto, established by the Nazis during World War II. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

On that day, I stopped at a nondescript former elementary school with deep significance: it was built on the site of the former Great Vilna Synagogue, which stood for 300 years until the Nazis burned it down during World War II. French filmmaker Loic Salfati, who is working on a documentary about the synagogue, unearthed soil to reveal the stone floor where different parts of the complex had been. He provided moving insight into what Jewish life was like when the synagogue was the center of the community here and discussed the long road to try to rebuild and restore what is left.

French filmmaker Loic Salfati is working on a documentary about the Great Vilna Synagogue. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

French filmmaker Loic Salfati is working on a documentary about the Great Vilna Synagogue. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

French filmmaker Loic Salfati is working on a documentary about the Great Vilna Synagogue. (TW photo by Johanna Jainchill)

I was in Vilnius trying to retrace the history of one side of my family, which, according to a great-grandparent’s passport, may have been from Lithuania. 

My host, Vilija Malinauskaite, CEO of Vilnius-based Travel Deli, partnered with U.S.-based Legends Abroad to offer a Jewish Heritage Tour of the Baltics this summer. She is among many tour providers finding, as borders reopen, that there is a renewed interest in meaningful travel, which for a growing subset of travelers includes trips that trace family roots.

Heritage travel (also called ancestry, DNA and genealogy travel) is loosely defined as visiting places related or significant to one’s ancestry. People have been returning to their homelands for years, but such travel boomed in popularity with the advent of home DNA tests that enabled travelers to pinpoint where in the world their forebears lived.

Malinauskaite began focusing more on Jewish heritage travel in the Baltics, citing growing interest, fueled in part by bookings from people who may have delayed such trips due to the pandemic. She cited one client from Los Angeles who visited in 2019 with two grandchildren and is returning this year with another grandchild, saying it might be her last opportunity. 

“Families need to travel now,” Malinauskaite said. “They never know when the world will close again.”

Other tour operators and travel agencies that specialize in heritage are finding similar sentiments and say that business is booming as people focus on trips with purpose as they return to travel.

Akua Washington, owner of Oheneba Events & Travel in Douglasville, Ga., said that while 2019 was a “great year” for business, the last half of 2021 and into 2022 “has completely overtaken what we did in 2019.”

Oheneba Events & Travel’s Akua Washington in Kakum National Park in Ghana. (Courtesy of Oheneba Events & Travel)

Oheneba Events & Travel’s Akua Washington in Kakum National Park in Ghana. (Courtesy of Oheneba Events & Travel)

Oheneba Events & Travel’s Akua Washington in Kakum National Park in Ghana. (Courtesy of Oheneba Events & Travel)

Washington, who specializes in heritage travel to Africa, said “revenge travel” seems to be driving people to do “all that they couldn’t” during the pandemic. 

“It’s an even more intense desire, and they want to do it with a quick turnaround,” she said. “In the past, we would usually plan it 18 months to two years in advance. Now, they want to go in two months. They are just really excited and don’t want to hold off any longer, based on all we’ve been through the past couple of years.”

Kathy Wurth of Family Tree Tours, which specializes in heritage travel to Germany and Ireland, said demand is strong and includes clients who had to cancel trips and put them off over the past two years. 

“I think everybody’s had enough of staying home,” she said. “People are anxious to go. You think you’ve got all the time in the world, and you don’t sometimes. We’ve learned our lesson about that.”

That’s especially true, she said, of her mostly older and retired clientele. 

In three photos from Family Tree Tours itineraries, a client stops at an ancestors’ home in Germany; a group visits Bremerhaven, Germany, where many German American families emigrated from; and a client looks over a family tree at a cousin’s home in Germany. (Courtesy of Family Tree Tours)

In three photos from Family Tree Tours itineraries, a client stops at an ancestors’ home in Germany; a group visits Bremerhaven, Germany, where many German American families emigrated from; and a client looks over a family tree at a cousin’s home in Germany. (Courtesy of Family Tree Tours)

In three photos from Family Tree Tours itineraries, a client stops at an ancestors’ home in Germany; a group visits Bremerhaven, Germany, where many German American families emigrated from; and a client looks over a family tree at a cousin’s home in Germany. (Courtesy of Family Tree Tours)

“It’s in the back of people’s minds: ‘I better not put this off,’” she said. “I think that generation is rethinking it: ‘Hey, we better do it before something else happens. Some of us don’t have a whole lot of years left.’”

Some companies jumped into heritage travel only since the pandemic. In 2021, AmaWaterways, citing an uptick in consumers embracing heritage travel, partnered with consumer genomics company Ancestry to provide guests with ways to discover details pertaining to their family history while on a river cruise. The Ancestry Experience includes precruise private consultations with Ancestry, onboard presentations and curated excursions accompanied by an onboard genealogist.

Alex Pinelo, AmaWaterways’ senior vice president of sales, said that there has been “great interest for heritage-centric travel.”

“We are seeing that people are yearning for memorable and meaningful travel experiences where they can immerse themselves into different cultures as they learn about their family’s lineage,” he said. 

The inaugural Heritage on the River cruise departs July 30 on the Rhine River and visits the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland. Ancestry-related experiences include a visit to the Red Star Line Museum, considered Europe’s counterpart to Ellis Island in Antwerp, Belgium, where many Europeans boarded Red Star ocean liners to the New World. A 2023 Heritage departure will sail the Danube through Germany, Austria and Hungary. 

AmaWaterways’ first ancestry-related sailing includes a visit to the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo by Maykova Galina/Shutterstock.com)

AmaWaterways’ first ancestry-related sailing includes a visit to the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo by Maykova Galina/Shutterstock.com)

AmaWaterways’ first ancestry-related sailing includes a visit to the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo by Maykova Galina/Shutterstock.com)

Also in 2021, Kensington Tours partnered with AncestryProGenealogists on what it calls Personal Heritage Journeys, designed to provide guests with “in-depth and privately guided exploration of their family’s roots.”

The experiences are built by a Kensington Tours’ destination expert along with a genealogist from AncestryProGenealogists, who may also be on the trip.

Kensington Tours president Helen Giontsis said that demand for heritage travel is being driven in part by demand for multigenerational family travel, which she cites as an indication of how important familial connections are to travelers. She also said some clients spent time during the pandemic tracing their roots and are turning to Kensington to “help bring these journeys full circle.”

Prior to the launch, Kensington’s Polish Jewish Heritage itinerary had been among its most requested Poland tours.

“This was a bit of a litmus test for us to expand on the idea of heritage travel,” Giontsis said. “Over the past year, more and more clients are asking to see where their grandparents are from or, in some cases, travel with their parents who haven’t been back to their homeland since immigrating to North America. Clients want to not only learn, but to feel, where they are from. They are looking for a trip of a lifetime.”

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Unique, meaningful experiences

Advisors and operators who specialize in heritage travel say they offer clients experiences not only full of meaning but ones that include experiences they would not have access to on their own. 

“Most of our clients are African American, and they’re looking for an experience to connect them to aspects of their ancestry and their heritage that they may feel disconnected from,” said Oheneba Events & Travel’s Washington. “It is an opportunity for me to be a conduit between those in the African diaspora all over the world, although our clientele is primarily based in the United States, and connect them back to their own particular culture and heritage.”

Clients of Akua Washington, owner of Oheneba Events & Travel in Douglasville, Ga., at the Great Temple of Ramesses II. (Courtesy of Oheneba Events & Travel)

Clients of Akua Washington, owner of Oheneba Events & Travel in Douglasville, Ga., at the Great Temple of Ramesses II. (Courtesy of Oheneba Events & Travel)

Clients of Akua Washington, owner of Oheneba Events & Travel in Douglasville, Ga., at the Great Temple of Ramesses II. (Courtesy of Oheneba Events & Travel)

Washington offers customized individual family trips as well as two to four hosted trips per year. Her deep ties to Africa, and especially West Africa (her family is from Ghana) enable her to offer singular experiences.

“As a travel agent, we want to show value and show you what maybe you weren’t able to do on your own,” she said. “Especially with Africa, a lot of what we do is based on our connections and the people that we know on the ground.”

As an example, on a trip to Ghana last December, dinner with a local family (which she includes with every trip) was even more special: It was with her family. 

“It was really cool — my clients got to meet my dad and some of my aunts and uncles and cousins and of course experience the food and the hospitality,” Washington said. 

Heritage travel is not always pleasant, something that Washington acknowledges and says adds depth to her tours. She noted her agency tag line: “Unforgettable travel experiences begin with us.” 

“And they’re unforgettable in multiple ways. Especially in West Africa, we’ll have a component for our clients that is gut-wrenching and something that you can’t come back home from and be the same,” she said. 

Among them are visits to slave dungeons and a river in Ghana where it’s said that enslaved people would take their last bath. Her clients put their feet in the water “and just kind of pay homage to their ancestors. It’s something that completely changes your perspective on your purpose in life and how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go,” Washington said. And while a lot of what her tours offer is “fun and exciting,” she said, those days are “very solemn” and “are going to hit people differently. Typically, when we get back onto the bus, it’s really quiet. People are reflecting, and we do our best to respect how everyone feels in those moments But the feedback always is: ‘Everybody should do this, everybody should have this experience. This has completely changed me.’”

Washington said what she loves most about her job is “connecting people to purpose.” 

“Oftentimes, [guests] go back multiple times after our trips. They have connections there, they’ve met people. We even have some people who start to talk about repatriating and buying property. People feel really connected to what their ancestors had experienced,” she said. 

A “slave castle” in Cape Coast, Ghana, a prison and embarkation point to the Americas for thousands of slaves. The site is visited on a Kensington heritage tour. (Photo by LifeOfDapo)

A “slave castle” in Cape Coast, Ghana, a prison and embarkation point to the Americas for thousands of slaves. The site is visited on a Kensington heritage tour. (Photo by LifeOfDapo)

A “slave castle” in Cape Coast, Ghana, a prison and embarkation point to the Americas for thousands of slaves. The site is visited on a Kensington heritage tour. (Photo by LifeOfDapo)

Family Tree Tours’ Wurth said her agency helps people research their genealogy prior to a trip to curate a better experience. 

“We help to make contacts in the town that they know their ancestors came from and try to get somebody to meet them and show them around,” she said. “We have had quite a bit of luck. In Europe, sometimes, the person’s house or farm might still be there after hundreds of years.”

The Jewish Heritage Tour of the Baltics offered by Travel Deli and Legends Abroad in August distinguishes its experience with its host, American Rabbi Jonathan Siger, senior Jewish educator at Hillel of Texas A&M, and by providing insight from members of the community like Salfati, the documentary filmmaker, who Malinauskaite knows via her deep community connections.

“There is nothing that compares to immersive encounters when it comes to transformative experience,” said Siger. “There is something about being there, in the places where our ancestors lived and struggled and built things, and sometimes died, that cannot be replicated by text study or even the most engaging of presentations.” 

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