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Exploring Your Roots: The Ultimate Guide To Amazing Heritage Tours

Ajitsa A.

by GoWithGuide travel specialist:Ajitsa A.

Last updated : Jul 10, 202468 min read

Travel Tips

When I was growing up, I couldn’t remember much about my home. Not the apartments, or neighborhoods where I spent most of my childhood. I’m talking about the country I was born in. Kenya. After years of being raised in the United States, coming back to experience Nairobi’s famously warm weather, dizzying traffic, and fast-paced language felt like landing on a completely different planet. A far cry from the windy, calm Midwest plains I was used to. 

 

You could say my move back home was one gigantic heritage tour that’s still going on to this day. And while I am fortunate enough to have the time to slowly explore my home country, for a traveler like you who wants their own heritage tour, time is of the essence. Which is exactly what we’re going to get into in this article. So let’s break down what heritage tours are, how to plan one, when to get a local tour guide and what to do once you’re on the ground, exploring the sites and sounds familiar to your ancestors. 

 

Travel Definition #1: What does Heritage mean?  The Cambridge Dictionary describes heritage as the history, traditions, practices, languages, buildings etc. of a particular country, society, or company that exists from the past and continues to be important. 

 

Back To Basics: So What Is A Heritage Tour, Anyway? 

 

Now, you may be thinking, isn’t finding your heritage like that show where celebrities take DNA tests and discover their families scandalous secrets? Not exactly. That’s what you would call genealogy/ancestry discovery.

 

So what are heritage tours? Heritage tours focus on your general ancestry. For example, if you were born in the United States but know your parents or grandparents came from Ireland, your heritage tour would involve  focusing on discovering the overall diverse and distinct history and cultural practices in Ireland. 

 

For a genealogy/ancestry tour, you would need a lot of researched information, a lot of time, and a lot of money.  Genealogy tours require a genealogist (professional in tracing kinship and historical roots of a particular bloodline) to track down your lineage in a country/area. They would go through public records, archived records, review DNA tests, crosscheck information, and sometimes visit the area to talk to local record keepers and residents. It sounds like a lot, because it is a lot. 

 

Heritage tours are a broader, more accessible approach to connecting with your root. It saves you research effort, time, and the costs that tracking down the exact village your great aunt was born in. 

 

What A Heritage Tour Is & What It Isn’t

So heritage and genealogy tours are not created equal. Still have questions? Here’s a quick chart of which is which, and how to spot the difference. 

 

With Heritage Tours…

 

  • You Follow General Ancestor History: The tours focus on exploring historic and ancestral sites within the travel area. So you will experience the larger cultural heritage and stories of the people there, from their food and dressing, to the current social setup. You’ll look at the ancestry/history of a people group overall. For example, you’ll discover the history/practices of Okinawans instead of the history of the Higa family bloodline. 

  • Self Research Is Possible: These tours typically rely on established/available historical narratives, tourist guide knowledge and curated sites to showcase the country's heritage. This means you as a traveler can research loosely on your own, or have a local guide create an itinerary based on their local knowledge. If you have any direct information about your lineage, add that to your conversation with a local guide to enhance the tour. 

  • Tour Time Is Specific: With a heritage tour, you can fully customize your experience to explore sights you and your family are interested in, on your time. This makes for a more concrete schedule, with no worrying about going too far from your intended destination/area, or spending time chasing down a lost relative or historian to meet at their convenience. 

  • You Have A Higher Chance Of Accomplishing Your Goal: Since these tours are more general, there is little room for disappointment. You have a wide pool of experiences and information to choose from, so you and your travel team are bound to find something for everyone. With genealogy tours, if the researchers hit a roadblock, you can’t locate a key relative, or if family records are nonexistent/destroyed, your journey ends there. 

 

With Genealogy/Ancestry Tours… 

 

  • You Trace Your Specific Bloodline: Think of genealogy tours as a fine toothed comb. They concentrate specifically on locations relevant to your family's bloodline, tracing ancestral homes, land, grave sites, and connections within your family tree. 

  • The History/Culture Is Personal: Beyond general history, these tours focus on educating the traveler about their specific family lineage within the country/area and beyond, speaking to the personal family customs, behaviors, tragedies, triumphs, and historical artifacts if any. 

  • Professional Research Is Needed: Genealogy tours are intense, so they need a professional’s expert methods. They involve extensive genealogical research, including record and archive analysis and DNA testing, to trace and authenticate familial connections and history. A genealogist and historian are a need here, and not a want. 

  • Your Tour Time Varies: The tour follows your family bloodline’s movements and settlement areas. This means your trip might be longer or shorter than expected, and could span several areas/countries, depending on the complexity of your family tree and the sites connected to it. 



Travel Definition #2: What does genealogy mean? The Cambridge Dictionary states that genealogy has to do with (the study of) the history of the past and present members of a family or families (kinship/bloodline).

 

Why Heritage Tours Matter: Reasons To Connect To Your Roots

A collage of 9 different pictures, where each picture expresses a cultural practice from a different part of the world (dancing in spain, playing bagpipes in Scotland, Chinese new year festival etc.)

 

Okay, time for a little honesty here. My heritage was never a big deal to me. At least, not until I got older. But when I moved back to Kenya, beyond the culture shock (matatu culture requires an article of its own), bouts of malaria (if you’re coming to Kenya, take malaria meds!) and re-learning a forgotten language, I started to discover a side of myself I had never fully considered. My heritage. 

 

Most people can’t move to the land of their ancestors. That would be a complicated process. But visiting the origins of your greater cultural group can be a life-changing experience. So why should you go on a heritage tour? If you find yourself nodding ‘yes’ to these reasons below, you're ready for your heritage to take center stage. 

 

Why You Should Go On A Heritage Tour 

 

  • It creates a chance for you to regain a lost connection with your country of origin, giving a fuller picture of who you are today. You can share this knowledge with your children, grandchildren, and family circle. For example, a heritage tour for Hawaiians and Japanese-Americans to Okinawa can reveal the migration patters over the years, highlight lineages through graveyard visits, and show how food and history was shaped by locals and the diaspora. 

  • You gain deep, focused knowledge about the history, structures, social systems, language, and daily behaviors of those cultures you are connected to. Heritage tours take you back to where it all started, and show you how your people are living today and how they  lived in the past. For example, a heritage tour to Mexico City would feature a look through the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and how it impacted migrants and locals, or a cooking class that covers foods native to the city. 

  • You see life from a different perspective after encountering people from a different part of the world. This perspective shift can bring inspiration for your own living style, and create appreciation for how far you’ve come personally, and as a people group. 

  • There are some truly amazing social and cultural customs that you can engage in (like an Irish music & dance workshop or Guinness tour) that provide education while being downright fun (like pasta making and a leather works class in Florence, Italy!). The possibilities are endless. 

 

Now for me, just because I had landed in my home country, didn’t mean I had immediately connected with my heritage. It took some time to understand that it was something I had to seek out actively. To paraphrase Boromir’s legendary speech (Lord of the Rings, anyone?) “One does not simply book a flight”. 

 

Heritage tours don’t follow the typical vacation format. They are personal. If you have Korean ancestry, instead of a trip to South Korea just for the K-beauty and K-pop (which you should check out!), you’ll also tour Gamcheon Culture Village, where former refugees of the Korean War have grown into a thriving and vibrant community. 

 

Or if you have grandparents or parents who served in the Korean War, a guided trip to the DMZ and War Memorial could be eye-opening for you and your family. Heritage tours can lead to some life-changing insights when done with love and care, so here’s how you can turn your next trip into a heritage filled adventure.

 

A Three Step Plan To Creating A Heritage Tour Of Your Own

 

Now, as a Kenyan born to two Kenyan parents, my heritage was very simple to discover. Others aren’t so lucky. For people with mixed or lost/unknown heritage, planning a tour like this can be difficult, so a little help goes a long way. So if you're wondering “how do I plan a heritage trip?” Here’s how you can understand your broader heritage better and plan a trip around it.

 

Okay, it’s time to dive into your family's history by conducting a bit of research. You can go the paid route with some good old DNA testing, or check out these free avenues for certain regions. We’ve listed both options, to see which fits for you. Feeling enthusiastic? Combine both! 

 

Step 1: Research Your Family Origins

 

The Easiest Starting Point: Asking Your Family: Sometimes the answers are right in front of us. Are you fortunate enough to be connected to your grandparents, parents, a great aunt/uncle or even have some siblings and cousins that always seem to know the family’s secrets? Invite them over for a warm cup of tea and grab a notebook.

 

Oral history is a great way to learn!  Here are some quick questions you can ask that will give you enough information to head to the next stage.

 

  • “Where were our ancestors from before they came here?”

  • “Do we have any family traditions or customs that have been passed down from our ancestors?”

  • “Do you know any specific regions or cities  where our family originated?”

  • “Have any family members kept records or documents that might provide clues about our ethnic heritage?”

  • “Are there any cool stories or anecdotes about our ancestors' journey that you've heard or know about?”

  • “Have you ever visited our ancestral country, and if so, what memories or impressions do you have from the experience?”

 

Home Research Note: Going Through Photo Albums: A picture is worth 1000 words, right? Right. So looking through any old photo albums that your family has is a great way to pinpoint which cities your ancestors lived in. 

 

Research — Paid Resources: Okay, now that you have a rough idea of where your heritage lies (Japan, Korea, China, Mexico, Ghana, etc.) you can move to step 2. If there isn’t any family to ask however, paid resources are a great starting point for you, as these resources reveal your ethnic heritage, which is all you need to create a heritage tour. 

 

Pros 

  • The kits are comprehensive and quick to take, so you can send your DNA in without much fuss, and you get information beyond just ancestry/heritage. 

  • You’ll also get information about your ancestry percentage, and which country/countries your origins lie. Not only that, but you might even find a long-lost relative/sibling!

  • The results (African Ancestry) can also reveal the specific tribe/clan you come from within a given country/area if the records are available online (for example, as a Kenyan, I am from the Bantu group, and even further, I am from the Luhya tribe within that group). 

 

Cons 

  • Some online DNA kits are subscription based, which can run up the costs for something you only need to do once. 

  • Some DNA kits have a limited pool, so you can’t get direct specifics if you come from a country that isn’t as detailed when it comes to online DNA tracking.

  • Data privacy has become a major issue, and these testing hubs hold your DNA, giving them, and hackers, future access to private information. 23andMe had a huge data breach that affected 7 million users

 

Research: Free (kind-of) Resources: If you’re not up for the whole DNA thing, there are free and semi-free online resources that can help you on your research journey. Let’s check some out, shall we? 

 

Travel Note: Remember that you can access online libraries from government sources from countries that post their census/obituary results, or, if you are in the area, head to the library for a look through local archives. 

 

Online Research Databases (Global)

Travel Note: Remember, we’re not going down the rabbit hole of a lost cousin twice removed. We just need to find our country/area of origin, so once you hit that fact, feel free to move on to step 2. 

 

  • European & Asian American Ancestry: The Ellis Island Passenger Search —  Ever wondered if your ancestors were one of the millions who came to the US via Ellis Island? This site lets you figure that out. Most Ellis Island immigrants came from eastern and Southern Europe (Italy, Russia, and Poland)  

  • Multi-Ethnic Heritage/AncestryThe U.S. Government National Archives: Census Records — Census records are a great way to determine your heritage and luckily US records date back to the late 1700s!

  • Record Searching: United States Online Library and Obituary — Same as the census records, obituaries are a good way to learn about older relatives more connected to your country of origin, who have passed on, as most obituaries list the person’s last name. You can google the last name to discover the countries where such a last name is common.  

  • Genealogy Database: Canada Resources (country wide) — For Canadians looking through North American records for their heritage, the government lists several resources online. 

  • Australia & New Zealand Heritage Search: Find My Past — Aussies and New Zealanders interested in their heritage can check out this broad database. 

 

Pros 

  • These resources are mostly free (or offer a free trial) so you don’t have to commit to any complicated subscription plan. 

  • You can take as much or as little time as you need, and you don’t have to share any DNA to gain access to the general information needed for a heritage tour. 

 

Cons

  • It is much harder to find information if you have nothing to go on besides your name and assumed race. You will have to put in more effort than when using a DNA kit.  

  • Finding information about your heritage through free resources when you don’t have family members you can ask can take some time. Be patient as you do your research.



Travel Q&A: What is the most common country of ancestry? Here's a breakdown of the most popular ancestries for diaspora residents across the world. 

 

 

 

Step 2: Creating The Perfect Itinerary

 

A collage of four photos depictung different cultural practices from around the world (Scottish bagpipe player, Ghanian dancer, Mexican charro couple and a Japanese female performer)

 

Okay, you've done the hard part. You've asked that distant relative all the right questions, you’ve gone through online archives, and you know the country and maybe even the city you come from, and want to visit.

 

Some might consider this next part even harder than the last step, which is planning your itinerary. Like I said before, it can be hard to pick the right sites and activities when you’ve never been to your heritage country/area. These tips can help you narrow down your options, and there’s an even easier way to get your itinerary done, but more on that later. 

 

  • Identify Key Heritage Sites: Start by researching sites that hold cultural significance for your heritage, such as historical landmarks, ancestral key points, and monuments. These locations will ground your journey in personal and cultural history. For example, a heritage tour in Ghana should include the ‘door of no return’ at Cape Coast Castle. 

  • Include Traditional Experiences: Plan to visit local festivals, markets, and craft workshops. Immersing yourself in traditional activities offers a vibrant, firsthand connection to your heritage. For example, a heritage tour for those with Sicilian roots could include a Sarde a beccafico cooking class. 

  • Engage with the Community: Seek opportunities to interact with local residents and cultural experts. Personal stories and shared experiences can provide deeper insights and create lasting memories. You can do this by hiring a local guide. 

  • Explore Ancestral Culinary Delights: Don’t forget to savor the local cuisine that reflects your heritage. Whether it's a renowned restaurant or a cozy family-owned café, the flavors and aromas will enrich your cultural journey.

 

Now comes the simple part, collaborating with a local. No, you don’t have to DM strangers on Facebook. You can hire a local guide who already knows the lay of the land. That makes it easier to do the following; 

 

  • Choosing Places to Visit Based on Heritage Significance — Trying to come up with places that seem “culturally significant” can be quite the task, especially if you have never been to the country before. With limited time on a trip, you wouldn’t want to waste any trying to figure out if a site is interesting/relevant enough. Local guides have spent significant time in the city/country and know which places carry cultural significance without being boring or uncomfortable (a tour of a stuffy archive room doesn’t sound too fun). 

  • Understanding The Dos & Don'ts of the Country/Area — Grasping cultural norms and social etiquette is hard enough in a country we live in daily. Taking on the local customs, beliefs, and thought patterns of a new city and country can be overwhelming. Instead of worrying about making a social or cultural mistake, having a local guide means you can focus more on connecting with your roots, and gaining etiquette knowledge. 

  • Form A Bond With A Local — With a local guide, you have a direct link to the heritage and culture you’re trying to connect with. You have a direct wealth of knowledge right in front of you, so you can ask them anything, and they will be able to accommodate your curiosity and questions, and provide a wealth of knowledge, context, and understanding. No question is too silly for them. 

 

If you’re looking to benefit from a little research, and a little local knowledge, you can bypass a lot of hassle by hiring a local guide. For example, if you were a Kenyan, and all you had was your last name, that’s all you’d need! If I were to guide you, I’d be able to know your tribe and suggest cultural experiences specific to that tribe (festivals, dances, food and historic sites). Locals are the key you didn’t know you had. 

 

Travel Q&A: What are some examples of ancestry tourism?

You may have heard of these ancestry/heritage tourism plans. Some are even funded and championed by different country governments. 

 

 

Step 3: Prepare! What To Expect On A Heritage Tour (Packing, On The Ground & Dos and Don'ts)

 

You’re totally ready to get your heritage tour started. You know where you’re going, and you know the experiences you’re going to have. What you’re not sure if is how this trip will make you feel, and what you might encounter on the ground. So let’s figure that out in step 3, shall we?

 

Pre-Tour Tips & Travel Prep

Before you kick off your journey of discovery, here are some quick tips to keep in mind. 

 

  • Pack Light: You will be coming back home with a LOT of souvenirs, artifacts, and memorabilia from your life changing trip, so don’t stuff your suitcase. 

  • Learn Basic Phrases: Familiarize yourself with basic phrases in the local language of the regions you'll be visiting. Even simple greetings and expressions of gratitude can go a long way in bridging cultural barriers and showing respect to locals. A great way to learn is by letting your local guide teach you some phrases. 

  • Bring Comfortable Shoes: With so much to explore, comfortable shoes are a must! Whether you're wandering through cobblestone streets, hiking up ancient ruins, or strolling through bustling markets, supportive footwear will keep you going strong.

  • Bring A Journal or Travel Diary: Capture your thoughts, reflections, and memorable moments in a journal or travel diary. Writing down your experiences will not only help you process your journey but also create a cherished keepsake to look back on in the years to come.

  • Carry battery/charger backups for your phone or camera: You will also be coming home with a lot of photos, so make sure you have backup batteries for your camera (or a portable charger for your phone) and extra storage (memory card or cloud storage).

 

On The Ground: What To Expect On A  Heritage Tour 

Beyond the typical experiences one has while traveling, heritage tours can lead to the following;

 

  1. Emotional Response: Be prepared to experience an emotional connection as you explore the places where your ancestors lived, worked, and thrived. Whether it's standing in awe at historical landmarks, or learning a craft that has been passed down from one generation to another, these connections can be deeply moving and enlightening.

  2. Cultural Awakening: Through your heritage tour, expect to gain a newfound appreciation for your cultural identity and heritage. You may discover forgotten traditions, uncover ancestral stories, and reconnect with aspects of your culture that resonate deeply with you, now that you’ll be face to face with them. 

  3. Personal Growth: Finally, if you allow it, heritage tours can lead to personal growth and self-discovery as you journey through your heritage. Exploring your roots can provide valuable insights into who you are and where you come from, fostering a sense of belonging and identity that can enrich your life long after your trip has ended. Some people have even decided to move to their country of heritage after a tour! 

 

Dos & Don'ts For A Smooth Heritage Tour 

We can’t completely avoid culture shock. But we can make our journeys easier by having hands on knowledge about our destination.

 

Now that you’re prepped and ready for a tour of your own, these quick tips should help keep your trip on the right track.

 

Dos

 

  • Stay Curious: Keep an open mind and a thirst for knowledge. Ask questions, engage with locals, and dive deep into the history and customs of the places you visit. The more you learn, the richer your experience will be!

  • Respect Local Customs: Every culture has its own traditions and customs. Embrace them with respect and openness. Whether it's removing your shoes before entering a temple or dressing modestly in certain areas, showing consideration for local customs goes a long way in fostering positive cultural exchange.

  • Immerse Yourself: Don't just observe from a distance; immerse yourself in the local way of life. Try traditional foods, participate in cultural activities, and maybe even learn a few words of the local language. By fully engaging with the culture, you'll gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for it.

 

Don'ts

 

  • Don't Judge: You might have an idea of what practices/ideologies your heritage has, but things may be different on the ground. Avoid making snap judgments or imposing your own cultural norms onto others. What may seem strange or unfamiliar to you could be deeply meaningful to someone else. Keep an open mind and withhold judgment as you navigate different customs and practices.

  • Don't Disrespect Sacred Sites: Many heritage sites hold deep religious or cultural significance. Treat them with the reverence they deserve by following any rules or guidelines in place, such as covering your head or refraining from photography. Show respect for the sacredness of these places and the beliefs of those there.

  • Don't Overlook Local Guidance: Though you’ve done personal research, your private guide is there to help enhance your experience and navigate the intricacies of each destination. Listen to their insights, follow their advice, and be open to their suggestions. They can offer valuable context and enrich your understanding of the places you visit.

 

Travel Tip: Choose Heartfelt Souvenirs - You’ll have so much memorabilia pulling you in different directions, from locally made blankets to custom jewelry. Unfortunately, your suitcase space is limited. Select meaningful mementos that resonate with your heritage, such as handcrafted items or local art. These keepsakes will serve as cherished reminders of your journey and the cultural connections you made.

 

With these guidelines in mind, your heritage trip is sure to be an enriching and transformative experience! Now that you know what heritage tours are, what they can possibly mean for you, how to find your own heritage, how to easily create a heritage tour with a guide, and what to expect from your journey, what’s left? Making it all happen! 

 

Conclusion 

Ready to get your heritage tour started? Partner up with one of our local expert tour guides and start creating your dream heritage tour itinerary today!

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