Since the founding in 1999 of the Birthright Israel organization, more than 750,000 members of the Jewish diaspora between the ages of 18 and 32 have traveled to the Holy Land to connect with their heritage. In the last decade, similar initiatives have emerged elsewhere, sponsored by state governments, cultural affairs associations, and donors. Threaded with sightseeing excursions and language-immersion courses, the trips are designed to nurture visitors’ relationships with their ancestral lands while often enhancing these countries’ influence overseas.
Embedded in the mission of this program is the Ghanaian principle of sankofa, says cofounder Walla Elsheikh, which holds that you need to build upon the past to get where you’re going. The itinerary consists of visits to U.S. cities with a strong Black culture, like Washington, D.C., followed by a 10-day trip abroad. Schedules are packed with stops at historical sites, like Ghana’s Cape Coast fort and dungeons, as well as more forward-looking ones, like Accra’s African Center for Economic Transformation.
Meant for Cuban Americans in their 20s and 30s, these trips explore topics like technology and women’s leadership while supporting Cuba’s burgeoning private sector. Stays are usually based in Havana, with outings to secondary cities like Viñales, Cárdenas, and Matanzas.
Overseas Youth Taiwan Study Tour
Dubbed the Love Boat for its once-frequent dalliances between trip takers (as captured in the 2019 documentary Love Boat: Taiwan), this three-week summer program gives young adults, nearly all from the Taiwanese and Chinese diaspora, a fast-track education on the island. The country is distinguished from mainland China through tours of government buildings and cultural institutions, martial arts performances, and volunteering opportunities.
Heritage Greece Program
The National Hellenistic Society launched this two-week cultural immersion program for North American college students of Greek descent in 2009. Students are hosted at the American College of Greece’s sprawling, 64-acre campus in the Agia Paraskevi suburb of Athens, where they sleep in student housing. (They’re also paired up with a peer group plucked from the school, who are as likely to help nail down declensions as they are to explain national dating rituals.) Along the way, there are outings to archaeological sites like the Temple of Hephaestus, at the Agora, and visits to one of Athens’ many laikis, or traditional farmers’ markets.
Young Hungarians throughout North America can thank Allison Pataki, daughter of former New York mayor George E. Pataki, for ReConnect Hungary, which runs two-week trips to the homeland each summer for members of the diaspora aged 18 to 28. The experience, which is organized by the New York-based Hungarian Human Rights foundation, might include meetings with local business leaders and young members of Parliament, educational lectures, or excursions to cultural attractions like the ruins of Zador Castle and the Herend Porcelain Museum.
Domovina Birthright Program
One of the newer birthright programs, this 16-day trip launched in 2019 for 18- to 30-year-olds of Croatian descent. It’s backed by the Croatian government, which organizes—and partially funds—the experience, including the hotel, food, and sightseeing bills. There’s practically no shortage of things to see (or taste): excursions might include stops at the wine cellars of Ilok, the cities of Zadar and Šibenik, or the Knin Fortress, in the shadow of the country’s tallest mountain, the hulking Dinara.
And what to keep in mind if you’re creating your own heritage trip
Edward Piegza, the founder and president of the La Jolla, California–based travel specialist Classic Journeys, is seeing a significant uptick in the number of clients looking to recreate travel from another generation or opting for destinations based on a desire to connect with their ancestry. Here, he shares a few things to consider before you visit the motherland or the town where your grandparents honeymooned.
Set expectations. Things change, especially over generations. That charming village in the photo with the townspeople playing a game in the square may now be a strip mall or totally deserted.
Add another layer of discovery. Rather than arriving in a SUV or a tour bus, reach the ancestral hometown the way your relatives might have experienced it, maybe on foot or by boat. The novelty of the means of exploration can make the experience special and memorable, even if none of your family is actually there anymore.
Bring a family recipe to life. If there are no actual relatives left in your ancestral hometown, have a tour company or travel advisor arrange for a cooking lesson to learn how to make a favorite passed-down recipe in the way of the Old Country. It engages all of the senses and further connects the modern family to the old family traditions.
Work with a tour company that actually operates trips in the region you’re visiting. It seems obvious, but having local connections transforms the experience. By working with a guide who knows the area or the town—and who can act as an interpreter—your chances of truly connecting with your history increase.
Be prepared to do some research. If tracing family roots is important, you’ll likely need to comb through churchyards and cemeteries for family names, or visit the town hall to look for birth, marriage, and death records. Bring along a family tree so that chance meetings with local elders or the town historian can spark a memory and help fill in the gaps.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
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