When Jan Gow makes her annual pilgrimage from New Zealand to Salt Lake City, it's not to enjoy Utah's ski resorts, red rock canyons or five national parks. It's for the ribbons of microfilm and endless volumes of maps, cemetery and property records tucked inside the Family History Library.
The library, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1894, is visited by some 700,000 people annually and is widely considered the world's largest repository of genealogy records. It's a favorite destination for "genealogy tourists" — a devoted breed of traveler bent on tracing family trees.
"A woman once asked me to give her four words to explain why she should come to Salt Lake City and not just research it all from home online," said Gow, 70, of Auckland, who first came here in 1981 and has returned more than 25 times.
"I could think of one: Immediacy," said Gow. "When we're here, we can immediately pull out a film, or pull out a book, look at a computer, because it's all here. There's nowhere else, just nowhere else."
The Family History Library's catalog of resources — free for use by church members and nonmembers alike — includes more than 2 billion names of deceased persons, 2.2 million rolls of microfilm, 300,000 books and 4,500 periodicals.
These resources make the library a "must visit" destination for anyone who does genealogical work, said Jan Alpert, who heads the board of the 10,000-member National Genealogical Society. In April, the group held its annual convention here and drew a record attendance of more than 2,600, she said.
But it's also far from the only place to go, Alpert said.
‘Genealogy tourism is not area-specific’
"In addition to the National Archives in Washington D.C. and its regional archives across the United States, there are a number of exceptional genealogical collections across the country including the Library of Michigan in Lansing," said Alpert.
Also on Alpert's list is the Allen County Public Library of Fort Wayne, Ind., where the collection of some 10,000 digital volumes includes extensive military history records, along with Native American and African-American records. The library markets extensively to historical societies and other genealogy groups.
"We're always featured in the convention and visitors bureau guide," said Curt Witcher, the library's senior manager of special collections. "About 90 percent of our patrons are from out of our county."
And visitors tend to return. "People have fun here, and they are successful," Witcher said.
That Fort Wayne and Salt Lake City are not exotic destinations isn't important, said Carla Santos, an assistant professor of tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose study of genealogy tourists at the Allen County library was published in the Journal of Travel Research. The study found genealogy tourists considered travel destinations secondary to their trip's goal of collecting information.
"What that tells us is that genealogy tourism is not area-specific," said Santos. "So technically then, every community has something to offer because everyone has a family story that connects them to somewhere.
Genealogy draws international travelers
Many communities and some countries have recognized the genealogy draw. Tourism bureaus in England, Ireland and Scotland, for example, all credit genealogy research opportunities as being important stimuli for international travel, Santos said.
Back in Salt Lake City, Richard Williams, who manages the Plaza Hotel, said genealogy tourists have been a focus of marketing efforts since the 1980s. Hotel representatives attend at least six genealogy conferences each year. At least a half-dozen genealogy tour groups return to Salt Lake City annually, he said.
Gow leads a tour to Utah each year for stays of up to three weeks before heading on to the United Kingdom. This year, the trip cost each traveler about $8,000, she said.
"I can tell you that genealogy is a quarter of our business, maybe more," said Williams, whose 150-room property is close to the downtown library. "The down economy has hit us a little bit, but our genealogy business has been steady. Some of the groups were not as strong in numbers, but they still came."
More looking up ancestry online
Interest in genealogy Web sites is also high. Of an estimated 800 million Internet users in the U.S. and Europe, roughly 15 percent had visited a genealogy-related Web site, according to a 2005 report from Nielsen/NetRatings found that About 8 percent of those users, or about 56 million, were in the U.S., according to the data.
Web hits to FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, two of the largest online databases, are also climbing.
Ancestry's annual report showed a 26 percent increase in subscribers — to 1.2 million — between March 31, 2009 and March 31, 2010. And FamilySearch, an extension of the Mormon church and its library, now has more than a million registered users, with more than 10 million Web page hits daily, according to data from Paul Nauta, spokesman for the Family History Library.
"Every time new content is added online, there is a noticeable spike in online patron traffic," said Nauta. "Consumers are hungry for records of interest to their family history."
Alpert partly credits the surge in interest to the recent television shows "Faces of America" on PBS and NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" — featuring celebrities discovering their family trees with the help of trained genealogists. The NBC show drew about 6.5 million viewers per episode.
"These shows are wonderful because they are hitting an emotional nerve and that's what's getting people excited about family history," said Alpert, who has been working on her family tree for 30 years and has crisscrossed the country looking for documents and other clues. "When you know what your ancestors went through, you have a much greater appreciation perhaps for why you are the person you are."
Some research can be done online from home, but Gow, who heads the New Zealand Genealogical Society, said there's no substitute for packing your suitcase and seeking out your ancestral home.
"To walk down the aisle of the church where you know your family ancestors were married, that's really something special," said Gow, who has traced her family to the 14th century and claims both Charles Darwin and William the Conqueror as distant relatives. "To walk through villages and sometimes you're able to find their homes ... just even to see their headstones in the graveyard is really something."