TWO years ago Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing announced that ancestral tourism would be the underpinning theme of Scotland's 2014 Year of Homecoming.
Few doubt the enormous potential for boosting Scottish tourist revenue through what Americans like to call "tracing". Scotland has probably the best genealogical records in the world. Yet of the estimated 50 million people with Scottish ancestry, only about 213,000 visit Scotland in any one year to conduct ancestral research, spending around £100m. Surveys suggest that market could grow nearly five-fold, netting around £2.4bn over the next five years. (VisitScotland research calculates that 10 million people want to find out more about their Scottish roots by visiting Scotland and around 40% of them are actively considering such a trip.)
However, there is a huge gap between calculating that staggering potential and tapping into it. As The Herald reports today, the resources to cater for ancestral tourists are many and varied, including national and council archives, libraries, heritage centres, historic houses, burial grounds, museums (including regimental and clan museums), family history societies, genealogists, websites such as ScotlandsPeople, tour operators, specialist accommodation and visitor information centres. Yet even within each locality, these facilities are rarely joined up. In fact, according to Dr Bruce Durie of the Scottish Government's Ancestral Tourism Steering Group, often they do not even know of each other's existence. Few local authorities have staff dedicated to ancestral tourism or provide a single access point for further information and advice. Some clan and family centres are well geared up for genealogy. Others are not. There is not even any agreement between different agencies as to what ancestral tourism consists of.
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The result can be a frustrating and bewildering experience for visitors. Such tourists often arrive at the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh or Glasgow's Mitchell Library family history facility unaware of the need to book places in advance. Their ancestors may come from counties that no longer exist (Haddingtonshire, for example) and they do not know which council to consult. VisitScotland staff are often ill-equipped to offer advice to these amateur researchers.
A series of simple leaflets, covering national and regional resources would help, as would training courses for information centre staff. Local consortia are needed that include both professionals and volunteers. Above all, perhaps, examples of good practice should be shared. A case in point is the excellent Routes to Your North-East Roots programme in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, a web portal of genealogy and family history resources in the area run by an affiliation of agencies and local organisations, with extensive links to related facilities.
A country that exploits its outstanding scenery and heritage so effectively should have got to grips with the potential goldmine of ancestral tourism decades ago. As it is, despite its vastly superior parish and statutory records, Scotland lags behind Ireland. These tourists cover an enormous range. At one end is the dedicated researcher who has spent years on websites tracing hundreds of Scottish ancestors and who needs little more than a tailored itinerary. At the other is the hapless tourist who pitches up in Edinburgh, convinced that he is directly descended from Robert the Bruce or William Wallace, in anticipation of an instant family tree to prove it. Scotland should be smart enough to be able to cater for both of them and send them away happy. First it needs a coherent ancestral tourism product to sell.