Genealogy Travel A Perfect Fit for Arkansas

Jeanne Rollberg Commentary

Genealogy Travel A Perfect Fit for Arkansas

As the Governor’s Conference on Tourism meets in Hot Springs next week, it will explore ways to entice more tourists of all kinds. Tourism is an important part of our heritage. Didn’t the Arkansas Traveler of lore seek both adventure and learning?

Clinton National Airport saw a 5 percent-plus increase in passenger traffic, and Arkansas served 30 million tourists overall in 2018. The 2 percent tourism tax brought in more than $16.3 million.

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All those tourists brought DNA with them, and those with Arkansas roots may hunger for a deeper sense of identity and heritage. They can engage in genealogy travel 365 days a year in all areas of the state, and some of them already are.

The Natural State must consider investing in promotion to do three things: attract new travelers (including those at family reunions), extend the stays of business travelers whose heritage is here, and encourage Arkansans to learn about their own heritage in other parts of the state. We must promote genealogy to a logical tourism base here — retirees.

This all comes as no surprise to the Friends of Arkansas State Archives or the Arkansas Genealogical Society. From 2015-17, tourists from outside the state comprised 48 percent of the State Archives’ new researchers. Likewise, the Genealogical Society hosted many out-of-staters at its convention in October where both genealogy travel and a nationally known speaker on DNA research, CeCe Moore, were on the schedule. AGS has supported genealogy travel for years.

How can we encourage “roots tourism”? The reorganization of state government, likely to combine the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and the Department of Arkansas Heritage, presents the perfect chance to combine resources that underpin heritage tourism and genealogy travel. Tourism Director Jim Dailey often speaks of a sense of place and of each community promoting its own story. Its story is rooted in the heritage tourism sites and facilities the state and communities have already invested. Building on that is essential.

Cynthia Dunlap, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, says merging with the Department of Arkansas Heritage makes "perfect sense." Learn more from Dunlap in this week's Executive Q&A.

Director Stacy Hurst likewise has Department of Arkansas Heritage ads that encourage family history travel, and this is all to the good, occurring as it does at the same time that DNA testing has exploded. Have DNA test — will travel. You’ll be inspired to travel to research facilities like the State Archives overseen by Hurst’s unit, then to heritage tourism sites for context for your family places. You’ll experience the food and culture in places your ancestors trod. You’ll attend reunions. Genealogy travel and research discovery are transformational, as anyone who has undertaken them will attest.

It is also lucrative. Statistics on heritage tourists show that they stay up to 30 percent longer and spend more money than other tourists. So as tourists with Arkansas heritage come back to explore family origins, they can also contribute to the state’s economy and quality of life. That is a heartwarming win-win for a family values state.

All parts of the state can promote and benefit from genealogy travel and research. Central Arkansas — featuring diverse Native American, African-American and other immigrant history and museums, plus the Arkansas State Archives, the Butler Center, the Mosaic Templars and other research facilities — is made for genealogy travel and regional and national genealogy conferences.

The Arkansas Delta Byways area, where Arkansas State University, under Ruth Hawkins’ direction, has developed many heritage tourism sites, and which also features important research areas and facilities, is another area ready to go. El Dorado, Fort Smith, Fayetteville and other communities have equally unique history and cultural offerings.

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We have Civil War history and other military history. We have agricultural and frontier history. We have suffrage history and presidential history. We’ve got gambling and Prohibition-era history. We have foodways history. Each community can add genealogy travel to its heritage tourism promotional materials with minimal additional cost. Civic organizations need presentations about this: They can help promote such travel.

For the traveler, Arkansas has well-established historical associations, libraries with genealogy events and archives. It also hosts more than 200 family reunions a year, with reunions nationally serving 40 to 200 people each. Arkansas must reach out to reunion travelers to help them see the full picture of research and heritage tourism to round out a memorable family experience.

Expanded website pages and booklets targeted at genealogy travelers perhaps developed by Parks & Tourism and Heritage together could be useful. Genealogy travel is personal, customized, heart-to-heart, face-to-face, eye-to-eye family experience, but it benefits from inspirational professional guidance that the state can provide at little cost.

The time is now. Those ancestors don’t want to wait much longer to be discovered; they provide surprising inspiration for who we can become. In February, the month of love, we feel generosity, and we sense that the heart wants what it wants. The heart wants genealogy travel, and Arkansas is a Natural State to nurture and benefit from it.

Jeanne Rollberg serves on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. A genealogist with American Dream Genealogy & Research, she is a speaker who teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas. Email her at