In April 2016 Fathom, Carnival Corporations’ newest initiative, launched its inaugural cruise to the Dominican Republic. But this time there’s a difference, as Fathom isn’t your average cruise line. Instead, the ship transports passengers from Miami to the Dominican Republic to participate in social impact activities, creating the opportunity for travelers to give back to the local community and understand the area on a deeper level.
Fathom does not call itself voluntourism. Which is smart given that voluntourism has gotten such a bad rap in the past few years, facing criticism left and right. Instead they’ve coined their own moniker: Social impact travel.
How Does Fathom Work?
The idea behind this unique venture is to harness the latent potential of cruise ship travelers and use that power to contribute to a greater good. The basic premise is to use this untapped labor force, if you will, and put it to work at certain impact activities that assist local social businesses and nonprofit organizations.
Sounds great, right? Taking travelers that would normally be sipping daiquiris by the pool into developing communities, pulling back the curtain on these destinations and getting people past the gates of the port and out of their comfort zone is definitely a good thing. Isn’t it?
Initially we were hesitant. How much could we really contribute through half-day activities? Would we actually be having an impact? Or would this just be another example of Western pseudo do-gooding?
Coming from 5 years experience working in international nonprofits and currently getting our Masters in International Development, we knew first hand how incredibly complicated it is to make a truly positive impact. Developing communities are comprised of already marginalized, vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, no matter how good your intentions are, some projects and programs can have negative, sometimes disastrous effects on the local people.
Then there’s that whole Western savior complex that makes unskilled, inexperienced foreigners feel qualified to go into “third-world” countries and help, because, well, “we’re more developed than them so surely we must have something to offer.” However, the real tragedy is voluntourist corporations that use good-hearted travelers and charge them a pretty penny to feel like they’re giving back, but are really using the community as a prop for poverty without actually helping anyone. With all these issues at hand it’s not wonder voluntourism gets such a bad rap.
Is Fathom Making a Difference?
So when Fathom invited us on their inaugural trip to the Dominican Republic we had some hesitations. Nevertheless, we approached this opportunity as we do all of our travel, by deciding to see for ourselves before making a judgment. We went on this trip to ask the question, is Fathom voluntourism or true social impact?
Having now been on the week-long cruise, returned to dry land and had some time to digest our experience, we can now say that the Fathom team not only have the best intentions at heart, but are also making an impact in the lives of the Dominicans, as well as Fathom travelers. Like all new ventures, there is still some tweaking to be done to help things run smoother and maximize impact, but throughout our week with Fathom we became increasingly impressed with the level of care put into every detail.
The Impact of Fathom Travel
One aspect of the trip we were hyper aware of was exactly how much impact a group of travelers could have in such a short time. In our profession, we are used to slow, progressive development that traditionally requires a commitment of months or even years on the part of the volunteers. How could a group of foreigners, the majority of which had never been to the DR or knew anything about the local development context, make an impact? Not to mention the fact that the activities were generally only a few hours in length.
I think the biggest shift in mindset, for us and our fellow travelers, was accepting our limitations and understanding we could only offer so much given the circumstances. Could I teach more than a few phrases in English to a group of 3rd graders in a half hour period? Nope. But the whole idea behind Fathom is that you’re a small piece of a much, much larger puzzle.
Every time a group of volunteers visit the class these students will gather a few more phrases in their tool-belt and over time develop substantial language schools. Sure, teaching “hi, how are you” may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but it’s nice to be a cog in a machine that’s actually doing some good in the world.
Criticisms of this model say the ever-changing nature of coming into classrooms for short amounts of time disrupts the capacity for people, particularly children, to learn effectively. The simple answer to that statement is that these classes are run more like an extra curricular activity to compensate for an already stretched and under-resources educational system. Volunteers are not under the impression that they’re saving lives, nor are they creating projects and then bailing, they’re simply joining a pre-existing system and seeing where they can lend some assistance.
Silencing the Haters
Naysayers will also argue that our presence at these social impact activities does more to distract and slow down progress than to assist it. I’ll even admit, during my first activity at one of the social businesses, I felt like I was getting in the way rather than helping. But the fact is, we were making an impact; the numbers back it up. During our day at a women’s paper recycling cooperative we helped produce 2.5x the amount of paper they usually make in a day. That means they’re now able to make a much greater profit, expand their operation and eventually hire new employees. Every time volunteers visit the project these results will continue.
When we visited a chocolate making social business we helped produce in one day the amount of chocolate they normally produce in a week. When I heard this from our impact guides I was shocked. None of us had paper-making experience, we weren’t secret chocolatiers, we were just a group of 30ish people, a labor force that was able to do some menial tasks (stripping paper, sorting cocoa beans). It didn’t feel like much at the time, but with a small contribution from every person we were able to accomplish a lot.
Sustainability of Projects
One of the biggest criticisms of voluntourism is the idea that an organization just comes into a community, assumes it understands their needs and begins working without considering the future or possibility that they may have to leave one day. And on face value one may think that Fathom has just chosen a random community in the DR and began projects that would fit with the interests of the travelers. Luckily this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Fathom is made up of a very experienced and capable team led by president Tara Russell, social business expert and serial do-gooder, supported by a talented team with experience in areas like the Peace Corps, high-level NGOs and grassroots organizations. They know their stuff. They also know their limitations when it comes to understanding the local context. That’s why Fathom has partnered with local organizations, IDDI and Entrena, that both have a rich, long-standing history of community development in the Dominican Republic. These organizations have been working directly with the local community for decades and have a track record of successful programs. By tapping into these preexisting projects, Fathom can be sure that their volunteer force will be put to good use.
Additionally, the funding providing by Fathom from its travelers has allowed these partners to hire new local staff (namely our impact guides for each activities) and expand their programs. In the case of the chocolate makers, the resources from Fathom has allowed the President to return to university to study finance, which in the future will allow her to make an even bigger impact in the business.
It’s true that Fathom’s funding for the projects means that if the trips do come to a close, the businesses will have to scale back. This would obviously be a shame, but partnering with local organizations that have supported these initiatives long before Fathom’s presence means that the community won’t be left in the dust should it come to that.
Criticisms of Fathom Cruises
We’re not saying Fathom is perfect. Like any new venture, there are bound to be some kinks to work out and there were a couple things that still made us hesitant about going into the community. For example, there wasn’t a clear policy on taking photos of community members during the impact activities.
We were told that our impact guides would have cameras and we were encouraged to live in the moment instead of viewing the experience from behind a lens. But there wasn’t a recommended etiquette to taking photos and personally we felt a bit uncomfortable walking through impoverished communities or local schools with travelers taking photos of people or houses without asking.
There was also a weird a feeling of heading into these developing communities for only a couple hours, being escorted in our air conditioned buses and then coming back to the luxury of the ship for a lovely dinner and drinks. With a social impact cruise there will always be a dichotomy between the standard of living of the local community and the privileges we’re afforded during our trip. Of course this speaks to a much, much larger global problem, and you could argue that Fathom is working to close that gap.
Then there’s the issue of the environmental impact of cruises in general. Carnival in particular has a terrible history of environmental offenses, often rating the lowest scores possible for sewage treatment and air pollution reduction. With this track record, one could ask whether Carnival is in a position to tell others how to have a global impact when they seem to have some internal work to be doing on the same issue.
Additionally, there will always be the argument that there are ways to have a greater impact. And that’s definitely true. Fathom is volunteering-lite. You would absolutely have more impact if you spent a month in one of these developing communities, volunteering full-time. But the reality is that most people don’t have the time or the desire to commit for that long. For those that want their volunteering with a side of pool-time and a margarita, or those that are unsure how to get started volunteering overseas, Fathom provides an easy way to give back while still having a holiday.
Is it Peace Corps level volunteering? Not by a long shot. But it’s bringing awareness of social issues to the otherwise excessive world of cruises.
The Larger Impact of Fathom on Travelers
Throughout the journey Fathom reinforced the idea that the trip would have just as much of an impact on ourselves as it would on the community. And no, that doesn’t mean that they prioritize the experience of the traveler over the needs of the community. It simply means that the trip looks to expose travelers to a much deeper understanding of the concept of giving back.
As a long-term traveler, it’s sometimes hard to remember that for some people this might their first time out of the US. For others it may be their first time going past the gates of a cruise port. The experience of going into a developing community for the first time and witnessing the realities of global poverty is life-changing. It stays with you. When you go back home, to your family and friends, to your comforts and life of endless choices and possibilities, you carry that memory with you. And you may not realize it right away but it changes you. Sometimes in small ways, by simply appreciating your privilege or in larger ones, becoming more involved in your community or contributing to causes on a global scale.
This is what Fathom means when they say you’ll become part of the family. They don’t mean they expect you to come back for all their future trips (although I’m sure they’d love seeing familiar faces), but that they’re building a wider community of those that want to be part of a greater purpose: a global community of different nationalities that have a greater understanding, connection and respect for each other.
And that’s what Fathom, and on a larger scale social impact, is all about. Connecting people around the world, remembering that despite our vast difference in lifestyles we’re all brothers and sisters on this planet, no one person better than the next, all here to support and assist each other in whatever capacity possible.
As mentioned in the beginning, Don’t Forget To Move was invited to visit this Fathom cruise as guests. As always, the views and opinions expressed in this article are our own and in no way influenced by the fact that we received a complimentary trip.