Carnival launches new cruise lined aimed at helping passengers help others. (Photo: Carnival)
Carnival is entering the voluntourism business.
Carnival Corporation — parent company of Princess Cruises, Holland America, Seabourn, Cunard and, of course, Carnival — today added a new brand to its cruising roster. Passengers who sail with the new cruise line, called Fathom, can spend part of their weeklong cruise doing volunteer work to help needy communities in the Dominican Republic. Instead of parasailing, enjoying late-night buffets, and other traditional cruise activities, Fathom travelers will teach English to children, deliver drinking water filters, and help local farmers with the crops they need to survive.
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“I’m excited because, first and foremost, we have an opportunity to deeply impact the world in a way no one else does,” new Fathom president Tara Russell tells Yahoo Travel. “We believe this will be the first global impact experience that we bring to the world, so we’re excited to share it.”
When charity is your shore excursion: Passengers on Fathom cruises will help Dominican Republic residents improve their lives. (Photo: Carnival)
Carnival’s new announcement brings to mind several issues to… um, fathom: Can cruise passengers on a week-long vacation make any real difference in an impoverished area? Will Fathom will be a game changer in the growing world of volunteer tourism, an approximately $2 billion industry? And will Carnival be able to deliver on its stated goal for Fathom: to help travelers help others while having fun.
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Of course, Carnival believes the answer to all three questions is “yes.”
“Our consumers really want to make a really rich, meaningful contribution to the needs in the world,” Russell says. “And they want to have a really good time. We don’t see any reason that we can’t and shouldn’t provide all that to them.”
A cruise line of one: Fathom’s Adonia (Photo: Carnival)
What is a Fathom cruise?
First of all, don’t call it a cruise. “We really don’t distinguish it as a cruise,” says Russell. “We call it ‘a social impact travel experience.’”
Whatever you call it, the experience certainly is intense. Starting with Fathom’s first cruise in April of next year, passengers will embark from the Port of Miami aboard the MV Adonia, a 710-passenger vessel Carnival re-purposed from its British P&O line. During the one- to two-day journey to the Dominican Republic, passengers will get a crash course in the Dominican Republic and the tasks they’ll be performing there.
Once Adonia docks in Amber Cove, the brand-new port Carnival opened in the Dominican Republic, passengers will fan out to the surrounding needy communities to perform charitable works. In addition to teaching English or assisting with drinking water, Russell highlights another service project offered to Fathom cruisers: working on a cacao plantation run by a women’s cooperative.
The Adonia will sail to Carnival’s new port, Amber Cove, near Puerto Plata. (Photo: Carnival)
“Our travelers will be planting cacao and then helping [the farmers] make chocolate,” Russell says, adding with a laugh, ”which sounds terrible I’m sure.”
But delicious treats are serious business for the locals.
“Without our travelers, those women can’t produce enough cacao, which means they can’t increase their chocolate production, which means they can’t hire more women and they can’t grow,” Russell points out. “With us they can grow their production supply and sell more chocolate so that they can create more jobs.”
Working on a cacao farm run by a Dominican women’s co-op is one of the shore excursions (Photo: Carnival)
Just like traditional cruise ships, where passengers pick excursions and choose their chosen activities and times, Fathom will offer some flexibility in shoreside service projects. “Some of those activities are a half day, some of them are a full day,” Russell says. “People might chose to do things all three days on the ground in the Dominican Republic. Others might chose to do impact activities for a couple days and then go windsurfing on other days. Travelers can really customize based on who they are and what they want.”
Helping make filters for clean drinking water is one of the activities. But Carnival insists this will still be a fun cruise. (Photo: Carnival)
All work and no play?
Russell insists Fathom will be fun as well as effective. “I’ve grown a little bit tired of the idea that if you’re doing good you should be suffering,” says Russell (who before coming to Carnival founded Create Common Good, an Idaho-based food service job training and placement organization). “We don’t hide the fact that we think changing the world should be more fun than anything out there.”
To that end, Fathom’s Adonia will feature at least some of the amenities for which cruising is known. “Our travelers are going to want to eat, drink, and be merry,” Russell says. Adonia will boast multiple dining locations, bars, and a swimming pool (but no casino or Broadway shows). “Our market research has shown us that people want to make significant contributions but they also want to have fun,” Russell says. “And we don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
What will critics say of Carnival’s new charitable endeavor? (Photo: Carnival)
Will the critics like it?
The image of gigantic, gleaming white cruise ships depositing thousands of affluent Americans just a stone’s throw away from desperately poor Caribbean communities has never sat right with some. Critics have long accused cruise companies of not sharing enough of the estimated $2 billion they make in the Caribbean with some of the region’s impoverished residents. Some of these critics likely will look at Carnival’s new initiative with more than a little skepticism.
“Reality is that there will be critics and there will be naysaysers,” Russell says, adding: “Arnold [W. Donald, Carnival’s CEO] and I are deeply deeply committed to authentic impact. I would not waste my time on this were it not genuinely impactful.”
Carnival hopes its Fathom brand will expand to other ships and countries. (Photo: Carnival)
Can you fathom a future for Fathom?
If Fathom is a hit, it’s easy to imagine it expanding to additional ships (Russell cites internal company research that shows “the market is sizable enough for there to be multiple ships in the fleet over time”) and additional needy communities. One likely candidate: Haiti, where Carnival is trying to build its next port.
But first thing’s first; Carnival needs to make sure Fathom is seaworthy. “We’re mostly focused on making sure that we build the first ship and demonstrate that there’s an audience willing and hungry to have these impact experiences,” Russell says. Carnival expects Fathom will resonate with globally-minded millennials, parents who want character-forming vacations for their children, and older adults who want to shake things up after retirement, divorce, or the kids move out.
Voluntourism is a $2 billion business, and Carnival intends to add to that. (Video: Yahoo Screen)
And, yes, Carnival is well aware that many of Fathom’s intended customers have never taken cruises before, and that their experiences just might whet their appetites for more traditional cruises. “We do believe that there are a lot of people will look at this as another way to enjoy travel by sea,” Russell says. But whether Fathom sinks or sails will depend on whether Carnival can prove that good work can go hand in hand with fun vacations — and, perhaps more importantly, with profitability.
Tickets are now available for Fathom cruises starting in April 2016. Prices for the seven-day trip to the Dominican Republic start at $1,540 per person and will vary by season.
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