Peep into the past can build bridges

Discovering their family roots is drawing an increasing number of tourists to Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna
Discovering their family roots is drawing an increasing number of tourists to Scotland. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Dovetailing business with pleasure could prove an important way to maximise ancestral tourism’s potential says George MacKenzie

In today’s changing world, more and more people are seeking an answer from their ancestors. Online access to millions of demographic records is fuelling a surge of interest in ancestral research. But for many, this is only the start of the journey. They want to find the names and dates of their families, then they want to follow in their footsteps. That gives us a great opportunity to bring more visitors to Scotland. With Homecoming 2014 just around the corner and over 50 ancestral and clan-related events already in the programme, the timing couldn’t be better.

Ancestry is the sleeping giant of Scottish tourism. Recent research for VisitScotland shows ancestral tourists already pump over £100 million a year into the economy, and there is potential to grow this market substantially, up to £2.5 billion. Ancestral visitors are especially important because they come over a longer season, stay longer and spend more. To realise the full potential of ancestral tourism, we need to engage accommodation providers, tour companies, heritage properties, tartan suppliers.

We must train staff to understand the needs of ancestral visitors and ensure the welcome visitors get is consistent, coherent and high quality. That is the refreshed remit of the Ancestral Tourism Steering Group (ATSG) which I have recently begun chairing, supported by VisitScotland.

Plenty is happening already. A new guide to ancestral tourism, aimed at the business market, was launched by finance secretary John Swinney in July. Packed with practical ideas, it showcases how tourist providers have developed services to attract ancestral visitors.

Building on the guide, a series of workshops across Scotland rolls out over the autumn and winter to give tourist businesses the information and skills to tap into this lucrative market and be ready to seize the opportunities of Homecoming 2014. This aims to position Scotland on the international stage as a dynamic and creative nation and extend the benefits and opportunities offered by the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup. A year-long, co-ordinated programme of events celebrating some of Scotland’s greatest attractions will welcome visitors from around the world.

Data stretching back five centuries

Scotland has a big advantage, with some of the best-preserved and accessible family history records in the world. The ScotlandsPeople website holds data on 90 million people stretching back five centuries, so it’s easy for anyone with Scots ancestry anywhere to start searching online. VisitScotland’s dedicated website, is a great starting-point. For visitors to Edinburgh, the ScotlandsPeople Centre is a must-visit destination, a treasure-house for historians and genealogists alike.

Ancestral visitors

There is also a growing network of family history centres. Local authorities in Glasgow, East Ayrshire, Borders, Highland and Perth and Kinross, have already opened centres, with others in the pipeline. Visitors can access the national digital resources, plus additional records from the area – and get help from knowledgeable local staff.

What is the ancestral visitor looking for? Some want to do further research. Some want help from local experts, some want to attend clan events. But many want to find out about the places their ancestors lived. They want to follow in their footsteps, experience what life was like in the past, and search out visible traces of their families’ lives.

A couple of years ago a US Congressman and his wife visited Scotland, came to Register House to see the records of their ancestors, then went to Lismore to re-take their marriage vows in the church where his great-grandparents married.

A South African professor wrote about his emotional journey to worship in the Scottish Borders church his family had used 100 years before. We need to understand the peculiar pull of the past.

Local archives and libraries can help with regional guides, records and information. We’ll be working with the Scottish Council on Archives to co-ordinate efforts across the country. Our aim is to give ancestral tourists the best possible welcome, one that is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.

Family history societies, with around 40 local groups and several thousand expert members, are ideal ambassadors for ancestral visitors.

The Orkney model, where society members work alongside local authority staff helping with family history inquiries, is worth copying. The ATSG will be working with the Scottish Association of Family History Societies to get more members involved in helping visitors.

With a strong ancestral theme to next year’s Homecoming, there couldn’t be a better time for Scottish businesses to gear up for this lucrative and growing segment of the tourist market. Whether you have a whisky shop, a golf course or run a historic house there’s a great opportunity to cross-sell ancestral services to your customers. With 2014 set to be a historic year for Scottish tourism, let’s all work together to welcome the world.

• George MacKenzie is Chair of the Ancestral Tourism Steering Group