How DNA test kits, Airbnb and tech can help you discover your roots.

Who were your ancestors? Are you curious enough to book a heritage holiday based on an at-home DNA test? Many of us are. One of the hottest travel trends of 2020 is heritage travel. Other 2020 travel movements include cannabis tourism, women-only trips, bleisure (a mix of business and pleasure) and upskilling escapes.

Last summer, tech giant Airbnb took advantage of the rise in ancestry travel and partnered with the biotech firm 23andMe to give heritage travel recommendations to their customers. It was a calculated decision; guest reviews on Airbnb had provided data showing an increasing number of keywords related to DNA and heritage travel and thus, an increasing number of travellers were choosing to visit places connected with their ancestry.

Since 2014, Airbnb has seen a 500 per cent increase in the number of guests travelling specifically to explore their heritage. ‘Genealogy-focused travel is rising in popularity, and a number of travel companies are now specialising in providing genealogy and heritage trips and cruises,’ says Andrea Smith from the Lonely Planet. ‘This is partly because the internet has facilitated people researching their roots from the comfort of their own home, thus whetting their appetite for actually visiting the places where their ancestors once lived.’

What is 23andMe?

The biotech firm 23andMe is one of the largest direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies. It claims to analyse a customer’s DNA and provide a clear picture of their ancestry. Since the collaboration between 23andMe and Airbnb, customers can use their genetic testing results to pick travel destinations and track down their family heritage. ‘We empower 23andMe customers to learn about themselves and their ancestry through their unique genetic code,’ says 23andMe’s CEO and co-founder Anne Wojciki. ‘Working with Airbnb, a leader who is reimagining travel, provides an exciting opportunity for our customers to connect with their heritage through deeply personal cultural and travel experiences.’

What is the process?

In order for 23andMe to obtain sufficient quantities of DNA, customers do an at-home DNA test which costs £79. After swabbing the insides of their cheeks, they spit into a vial and post the saliva sample to the DNA lab for sequencing, where its genetic information is extracted. This is a relatively quick and non-invasive process, compared to getting hair and blood samples. After a few weeks, 23andMe email a link with a breakdown of their genealogy (according to the DNA sample) and where in the world they are from.
These DNA results are paired with a customised itinerary of Airbnb rentals and local experiences in the countries of their ancestors. Airbnb has pages that correspond with 23andMe’s genetic populations. Many of today’s travellers want to track down their newly found roots and pay homage to their ancestors. For example, a 23andMe customer with southern Italian ancestry might choose to find a trullo in Puglia as a home base to explore their heritage. A fellow consumer with Mexican roots could be find an experience in Mexico City to learn ancient techniques of natural dye as part of their heritage holiday.

A dangerous marketing gimmick, or inspired?

The partnership between Airbnb and 23andMe has not been met without controversy. Critics disapprove of this DNA-led ancestry travel for several reasons. Would you really want your genetic data shared with a company like Airbnb? How might the home-sharing platform use this highly personal information in the future? How reliable are these easily accessible DNA-testing kits? Does your genetic makeup really define your cultural identity or is it determined by the family that raised you?

There are many unanswered questions but wanting to track down ancestors is nothing new. Using home DNA testing to do so is the Google generation’s version of trawling libraries for family records. Are you curious enough to take the DNA test, and book a trip?

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By Annabel Jack
March 2020