Recent technological advances in DNA testing, as well as an all-time low cost for the service, have made heritage tourism more accessible than ever for black Americans, and some travel brands are marketing accordingly.
Back in June, Momondo released a promotional video featuring young people from various countries who took a DNA test (provided by AncestryDNA), which led to many surprising and highly emotional discoveries. The video concluded by asking participants if they’d like to travel to the countries listed in their results, which was answered with a resounding “hell yeah.”
A Momondo spokesperson reported that in the days following the video’s release, traffic to their website increased 43–45 percent.
This fall, Momondo also held a DNA Competition. Over 170,000 people entered for the chance to win a free DNA kit, and those who won a kit filmed themselves opening the results, from which a final winner was selected for a free trip to their ancestral homelands.
CNN’s video series Roots, in which celebrities have their DNA tested and then travel to their places of origin, built on the pre-existing popularity of the PBS show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., hosted by the famous Harvard scholar. The former effectively promotes DNA-based heritage tourism — CNN’s Don Lemon traveled to Ghana and had a very emotional experience.
“Testing the human genome is becoming increasingly more affordable,” said Dallin Hatch, a spokesperson from Ancestry, whose kits have gone from $200 back in 2012 when the product was first released to $100 now, the same price as the ancestry-only service from 23andMe. According to an article in Ebony, kits once ran about $600 apiece.
Kits offer new heritage travel opportunities to black Americans, who have unique challenges in pinpointing their roots. During slavery and Jim Crow, many records were absent or inconsistent, and many documents that make genealogy possible — marriage licenses, voter registrations, draft forms — were based on institutions from which black Americans were legally barred.
DNA can now trace a black American’s lineage to specific countries in Africa with greater accuracy than ever before.
“We have seen AncestryDNA become increasingly popular with minorities, especially black Americans,” said Hatch. “Some [customers] have found and traveled to old family homesteads, or other places indicated in the records. DNA provides the start and records provide the destinations.” 23andMe has run special initiatives to engage more people in the African Diaspora, and African Ancestry targets this demographic as well.
From Data to Destinations
This month Nomadness Travel Tribe conducted a poll of their 14,000+ members, the majority of whom are black Americans, on DNA testing and associated travel. The results showed that 30 percent of respondents had already bought a DNA kit, used it, and received their results, and 6 percent were actively planning trips based on those results.
According to studies conducted by Mandala Research, African American travelers spend $48 billion worldwide each year and are among the fastest growing traveler groups in the U.S. Sixty-eight percent of African American travelers would like to learn more about African American history and culture while traveling, and 62 percent would like to teach their children about these topics while traveling.
Kent Johnson, co-founder of the travel community Black & Abroad, said “We’ve definitely seen an increase in consumers traveling for the purposes of learning more about their cultural history. This is not limited to the more obvious locales, such as Africa or the Caribbean. Travelers have also taken trips to learn more about the pockets of black heritage in countries like Greece and the city of Amsterdam.”
Johnson also noted that with heritage tourism, customer satisfaction isn’t guaranteed. “I’ve seen both sides of the coin. Some have expressed disappointment with their DNA test results, and therefore a lack of interest in the trip,” with others “being able to locate a village or tribe of origin and a wonderful response once finally visiting.”
Nomadness founder Evita Robinson said on a Black Travel Movement episode of the Skift podcast, “I started this trend in Nomadness where we did the AncestryDNA because people want to find out where they are from. There’s definitely more of a pick up for [travel to] Africa right now and representing it more than safaris.” In September, Nomadness gave away AncestryDNA kits at their annual travel conference.
Momondo’s video and marketing initiative reflect a broader trend toward immersive, meaningful, experiential travel, especially as marketed toward Gen Y and Gen Z. Generally speaking, the deeper and more personalized the experience, the better, and tourism tailored to a traveler’s unique ethnic mix couldn’t get much deeper and more personalized.
The next step in experiential tourism might be to offer a custom-made guided tour built entirely on a person’s or family’s DNA results. National Geographic offers DNA testing as well as guided tours, separately, but a spokesperson reported that they haven’t paired the two products together and had no data on usage among black Americans.