Grab your swimsuit and pack your bags - it’s vacation time!
Sipping piña coladas by the pool all day? Snoozing in a chaise lounge under a coconut tree? Nah. The point of this trip isn’t to check out - it’s all about checking in.
Get ready to sail the highs seas aboard...The Volunteer Boat. (*cue music and title credits)
OK, so Julie McCoy may not greet you on the Lido Deck. But Carnival’s premiere brand, fathom, offers so much more than shuffleboard; this cruise is dedicated entirely to fostering a volunteer experience while traveling to exotic destinations. It’s all part of the growing trend of voluntourism for vacationers who want to give back while getting away. It’s a trend that has no shortage of critics, which I’ll get to in a bit.
But first, let’s set our compass for fathom’s maiden stop: the Dominican Republic, land of stunning natural beauty and crushing poverty. Average household income: $6,000/year, with 2 million residents living without access to piped water.
Mark your calendars for April 2016 to board the MV Adonia in Miami. Your cruise through the Dominican Republic will last seven days, starting with two days of community impact activity training, orientations and Spanish lessons as we travel to our first port of call.
You’ll have a wide range of social impact activities to choose from both onboard and onshore, depending upon your passions and skills, with an overall focus on education, environment and economic development. Creative workshops and personal enrichment exercises around social impact are also available, all interspersed with chances to explore the region and enjoy the beaches and recreation just like non-voluntourists.
"fathom will cater to a growing market of consumers who want to have a positive impact on people's lives and aren't always sure where to begin," said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald in a company statement. "We believe travel is a meaningful way to allow for personal growth while making purposeful and engaging contributions to the world. We are so pleased that fathom will give travelers a unique opportunity to work alongside local people as part of a larger scale effort that will demonstrably improve lives. Both our travelers and the local citizens will learn and benefit from the opportunity to serve together."
Carnival brought in social entrepreneur Tara Russell, Founder and Chairman of Create Common Good, to lead the effort and serve as President of fathom and Global Impact Lead for Carnival. Prices for the voyage start at $1540 per person, which includes an exterior cabin with a window, all meals and social impact activities. A portion of every ticket will go directly to fathom partner organizations Entrena and the Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral, Inc., to cover the impact activities onshore.
Before you book your tickets, let’s pause a moment to consider the not so pretty underbelly of voluntourism. While it all sounds great, this exploding trend has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years. As one CNN article pointed out, voluntourism can sometimes backfire, such as when orphan huggers inadvertently create a black market for “stand-in” orphans and well builders take work from locals. For that reason, one leading ethical travel company has removed all volunteering trips to orphanages from its site.
The boom in touring companies that offer volunteering opportunities has been peppered with oversights. For example, a common lack of screening of applicants who want to work with children, or a failure to consult locals in development projects intended to benefit them. In his CNN piece “Does ‘Voluntourism’ Do More Harm Than Good?”, photojournalist Richard Stupart refers to these lapses as a “race to the bottom in ethical behavior.”
While wanting to do good is nice, there’s a tendency to simplify the needs of local communities and create convenient, short-lived volunteer opportunities that are emotionally rewarding for “traveling narcissists.” Voluntourism becomes a commodity for-profit, no different than chintzy souvenirs at a gift shop. Real development that actually makes a difference doesn’t fit into this model.
Stupert denounces the view that “the desire of wealthy first-worlders to do good can be treated as a demand for which volunteerism products can be supplied, and that some minor good -- a painted wall or a child smiling for a day -- is better than no good at all.” He also disagrees with the argument that having volunteers engaging in clumsy and inefficient development projects is better than no such projects at all.
“In general,” Stupert asserts, “given a choice between spending money to go abroad and engage in a project with a local community for a few weeks, or donating the same amount to an established development organization already present in the area, it should be obvious that staying at home and sending your money instead will almost always be more helpful.”
One hopes that Carnival’s more thoughtful strategy will reimagine the possibilities for voluntourism. The company’s representatives believe that fathom’s dedicated approach to long-term sustainability is a breakthrough innovation in the travel and leisure industry, defining a new category called social impact travel.
The difference here is that the fathom experience is built on a systematic partnership approach with benefiting countries to pursue sustained impact and lasting development. With thousands of passengers regularly contributing social impact activities that are carefully shaped with local organizations, Carnival believes that fathom can generate authentic and long-term change, dramatically improving the regions it serves.
Even when voluntourism doesn’t improve the lives of impoverished communities, it can still be beneficial as a way to open up more awareness amongst participants (as long as it’s not inadvertently harming locals.) As Stupert concludes, “there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler's ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible.”
Only time will tell whether Carnival’s new adventure falls into the first category or second. But I’m cautiously optimistic that this enterprise is being built upon a thoughtful and solid foundation that will benefit everyone involved, and whose success will be measured according to impact, not emotions.