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Renee Farris headshot

A Ride on Carnival's New Social Impact Cruise Line

By Renee Farris

Carnival just launched a social impact cruise line that carries vacationing volunteers to work with social enterprises, nonprofits and communities in the Dominican Republic. The cruise line is called Fathom, and it’s essentially voluntourism (volunteering + tourism) on steroids.

Voluntourism is growing rapidly. NPR estimates that over 1.6 million volunteer tourists spend $2 billion each year. People are starting to demand purpose in all aspects of life, and travel is a natural fit.

For many, the more you travel and see the world, the more you care about people and the planet. When Bill and Melinda Gates traveled to Africa and saw deep poverty for the first time, they said it was “a turning point” in their lives. Thousands of other people could say the same thing, and I experienced this heart shift myself while traveling in Kenya and Tanzania a few years ago.

Eager to learn more about impact travel on such a massive scale, I joined the Fathom press trip. Here’s the scoop on what’s working and what isn’t.

What Fathom does right: Local partners, local buy-in

First, the good news. Fathom partners with two organizations, IDDI and Entrena, which have strong local roots. They know the people, the culture, the needs and opportunities. When Fathom passengers reach the Dominican Republic, these organizations lead the volunteer experiences at nonprofits, social enterprises and in the communities.

Under their guidance we planted over 2,400 trees and produced 50 water filters for clean drinking water. We worked with a women’s chocolate cooperative to sort 200 pounds of cacao and wrap 6,000 chocolate bars. We created nearly 600 sheets of recycled paper at a crafts social enterprise, poured concrete floors for two homes and taught English to nearly 650 locals. This work will be done over and over again as Fathom returns every other week with a fresh load of 700 volunteers.

The second smart choice Fathom made is ensuring the community has skin in the game by not giving away freebies. This empowers the locals and ensures there’s a market demand for the products. For example, if locals want a concrete floor in their home, they have to help pour concrete floors for their neighbors. If someone needs a $50 water filter, they can purchase it at the subsidized price of $8, trade in another product like a bunch of bananas, or do community service.

Volunteers are mentally prepared for the social-impact projects through on-board programming. For example, one class uses Ashoka’s social entrepreneur case studies to discuss how to become a change-maker. These workshops are entry level and great for people who are learning about social entrepreneurship for the first time (i.e., pretty much everyone).

Fathom’s ship, the Adonia, is refurbished which is better for the environment than building a new ship. The library shelves are filled with books like "The Promise of a Pencil," a story about a nonprofit that builds schools in developing countries. The gift shops sell products such as Krochet Kids bags, which empower people in Uganda and Peru.

The design of this cruise experience clearly shows the leadership team has significant experience working in social impact. Reading their bios proves this assessment to be true. Fathom president Tara Russell co-founded three social enterprises, and the vice president of operations, Kurt Kroemer, formerly served as senior vice president of the American Red Cross and chief operating officer of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The list goes on.

What Fathom has accomplished is incredibly difficult and worthy of respect. However, like most innovative pursuits, there are some serious kinks. Since constructive feedback is essential for improvement, here are some areas that could use some TLC.

Suggested improvement: Throw a life jacket to the environment

First, the ship needs environmental upgrades. Cruise ships like the Adonia are bad for the environment. Really bad. The Adonia’s Captain Box said the ship burns a minimum of 70 tons of fuel per day. Even when the ship sits in port, it burns fuel to power the electricity.

The heavy fuel the Adonia uses in international waters is hundreds of thousands times worse than truck diesel fuel. It’s so toxic that it’s banned in the United States, so the Adonia is legally required to switch to a cleaner diesel fuel when entering U.S. waters. The Adonia also burns trash which, according to Scientific American, “can cause lung and neurological diseases, and have been linked to heart attacks and some cancers.” So much for breathing fresh sea air.

According to Transport and Environment, an organization that represents 50 European environmental groups, “Air pollution from international shipping accounts for around 50,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, at an annual cost to society of more than 58 billion euros [around US$66.9 billion].” And that’s just Europe. Global figures would be much higher.

Fathom and all other Carnival brands could make huge environmental improvements on the ship if they wanted to. Last year the company's profits rose 44.5 percent to $1.76 billion.

During a press meeting onboard the Adonia, one reporter asked about the ship’s environmental impact. Arnold Donald, Carnival's CEO, replied: “Look, people have attacked the cruise industry for years. But just think about it for a second. You know, the cruise industry broadly. What do we do? We’re at sea. We’re in a marine environment, and we go to destinations. So, who wants to be in a yucky marine environment? Nobody.”

“What he’s trying to say is that doing good is also good for business,” interjected Tara Russell, the president of Fathom.

Donald continued: “We have a self-interest in protecting the marine environment and contributing to the ports we go to … What we’ve got is years and years of investment in advanced water treatment, advanced waste management, all that stuff. And the industry overall has it … And Fathom is way beyond that; that’s just what everybody does.”

Later, when 3p interviewed Russell and mentioned the ship's environmental impact, she responded by saying she used to think the cruise industry was bad for the environment before she started working for Carnival, but now that she works in the industry she thinks it's very responsible. She explained it like this: "For me, from the outside, I didn't have any understanding and perception. Then I got on the inside and I'm like, 'Holy crap, wow! This is unbelievably thoughtful and intentional.' I've just been so impressed and learned a lot."

What Donald and Russell did not say was that, on an environmental scale of A to F, the Adonia is rated a C- by Friends of the Earth, a nonprofit that creates report cards each year to rate the environmental impact of cruise ships. Its mission is to give vacationers information so they can choose a greener cruise. Although the Adonia has an advanced waste-water system, it doesn't include any improvements in other areas. Other cruise ships, such as some of the Disney ships, have made a lot of upgrades and earn an A.

This isn’t the first time Donald has refused to acknowledge the environmental damage the cruise industry can have on the environment. Last year Donald told cruise executives: “On the green side, in terms of environmental stewardship, I give us an A+.” However, that same day he was handed 100,000 signatures requesting Carnival ships clean up their sewage treatment.

Carnival was also petitioned last year to stop running over and injuring hundreds of whale sharks with cruise ships. Then last month Carnival decided to increase the number of whale shark encounters through tourism, which is the opposite of what environmental organizations recommend.

The environmental damage caused by the Adonia is happening in some of the most beautiful and pristine places on the planet. Just a couple of days ago, it was the first cruise ship to travel to Cuba (not for voluntourism but for cultural immersion). The New York Times reports Cubans are concerned that cruise ships and tourists will ruin the island nation's “pristine coral reefs, mangrove forests, national parks and organic farms.”

This fear is well founded. Cuba’s Caribbean neighbors have suffered beach erosion, forest destruction, river pollution, and other environmental degradation because of cruise ships and tourism. Also, beautiful undeveloped coastlines once dotted with local fishing boats have turned into touristy condos and souvenir shops.

Be transparent about crew wages, benefits, working hours and accommodations

A second downside is Fathom’s lack of transparency regarding its treatment of the crew. The Adonia flies a flag of convenience. What that means in this case is that, instead of being registered in the United States where Carnival is headquartered or in England where sister company P&O is headquartered, the Adonia is registered to Bermuda.

According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF): “A flag of convenience ship is one that flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership. For workers onboard, this can mean: very low wages, poor on-board conditions, inadequate food and clean drinking water, long periods of work without proper rest, leading to stress and fatigue.” It also means “ship owners can take advantage of: minimal regulation, cheap registration fees, low or no taxes, freedom to employ cheap labor from the global labor market.”

I asked Fathom about the treatment of the Adonia crew: How much do they make per month? How many hours per day do they work? How many days a week do they work? The company responded: “We pay our crew a fair and appropriate wage for their excellent service,” but it refused to give details.

A quick Google search shows that the Adonia crew are employed by P&O Cruises (another Carnival Corp. brand). In 2012, the Guardian called out P&O for its low wages. The cruise company paid crew members a minimum of $366 per month in 2012, with the potential for a $219 bonus if they exceed customer ratings ranging from 92 to 96 percent, the paper reported. A few years ago P&O also fired 150 employees who protested their low wages, so apparently not everyone thinks the company's income is fair.

One Carnival salary we do know, though, is Donald's: Last year he was paid close to $9.4 million, the St. Louis Business Journal reported.

Most crew members come from countries with much lower incomes, and whether they should be paid U.S. wages is controversial. But, considering the expensive flights to visit families back home, the fact that the ship sails out of Miami, and their long-term separation from their families, it seems the crew should be paid quite a bit more than they would make back home even if it's not U.S. wages.

Another concern regarding the Adonia's crew is their working hours and conditions. In the cruise industry, it’s common for employees to work 11 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. During the Fathom trip, I heard a couple of passengers say they were uncomfortable not knowing how workers were treated.

The bottom line is that Fathom needs to be transparent regarding the working hours, living conditions, health care benefits, vacation time and salary of its crew. This would allow passengers to decide for themselves whether their cabin steward and dining room waiter are being treated fairly and help them decide how much to tip.

Voluntourism: It's one way to help, or is it?

The last main issue with Fathom's cruise is the concept of voluntourism itself. Whether people are voluntourists with Fathom or another organization, it’s tricky to create an effective program.

To evaluate Fathom’s social impact, I chatted with co-passenger Aaron Hurst, founder of the volunteer organization Taproot Foundation and talent analytics platform Imperative and author of "The Purpose Economy."

Hurst said the best thing someone can do from an environmental impact standpoint is to stay home and help their neighbor. It’s also more effective to donate money than to do manual-labor volunteer work.

If you calculate the cost of your flight to Miami to go on the cruise and the amount you spend on the cruise ($1,400 to $5,000), you could easily donate the money and pay a local the minimum wage ($167) to work on a development project full-time for as long as 30 months. And they would accomplish far more during that time than you do working a couple of hours for three or four days.

The issue here is that if you don’t travel the world, then you don’t understand it as well. And donations aren’t life-changing like experiences are.

But, if someone is going to volunteer while traveling, the second best thing they can do is work on one project for as long as possible so the effort it took to train them pays off and they have time to become good at their job.

When traveling with Fathom, the partners on the ground spend a lot of time planning for us to visit, giving us a tour of the facilities and teaching us how to do the work. They cooked lunch for us while we worked for a few hours, and cleaned up after us when we left. We didn’t accomplish much work within those few hours that organizations couldn’t have done on their own in about the same amount of time. “In my work I’ve found that it takes about 40 hours of doing something before you get a return on investment for the organization,” Hurst told 3p.

So, why are these organizations partnering with Fathom? For several reasons. For one, Fathom has invested in them, and they are paid to accept volunteers. A percentage of each passenger’s ticket goes to the organizations.

Fathom declined to say how much the company invested in its on-the-ground partners and in what ways it invests. However, it did say the partners are contracted and it’s a fee-based engagement. So, when passengers go make water filters, the nonprofit benefits not as much from the manual labor, but because the cost of materials is paid for by Fathom.

Another reason this arrangement works well for partners is because their contract with Fathom ensures a continual flow of income, which makes it easier for the organization to plan for the future. Fathom also brings in more customers for at least one of the social enterprises. The faster these organizations can scale up and accept more volunteers, the better it is for Fathom. So, Fathom is happy to leverage its network and influence to create additional demand for water filters, etc.

The last reason it’s good for organizations is that they create relationships with volunteers and may receive donations on down the road. The water filtration nonprofit, Wine to Water, definitely made a pitch for donations at the end of the educational experience.

Should you book the cruise for your summer vacation?

Maybe, if you’re definitely going on a cruise. “If people are coming from a traditional cruise experience ... I think this is substantially better and worthy of being celebrated,” Hurst told 3p. “Everyone I’ve met who has been on cruises before thinks this is amazing and so different … It’s a very safe way to have a values-driven, intimate trip with your family.”

If cruising is your jam, check out the Ecoship. It features solar panel-covered wind sails, a closed-loop water system, on-board garden and nontoxic hull coating that mimics fish skin. It’s an educational cruise launching in 2020 to take passengers to various countries to promote peace and sustainability.

For the people who want to try out voluntourism but aren’t attached to the idea of a cruise, there are many other non-cruise voluntourism programs that are far better for the environment and offer a more immersive experience.

Hopefully those who decide to go on the Fathom trip realize it is less about creating positive impact for others and more about educating yourself. By putting yourself in an environment that may change you and make you a better person, you are better equipped to change the world when you return home.

“I really care about what happens to travelers when [they] get home,” Russell told us. “How are they perhaps different in their family, in their community, in their workplace? Or are they? Because if they go back and nothing has changed, then I don’t believe that we’ve done an effective job of delivering on this experience. We actually believe it’s a before, during, after and ongoing relationship that we’re trying to cultivate."

Image credits: Renee Farris

Ed Note: Accommodations, travel and guidance were courtesy of Fathom and Carnival Corp. Neither the author nor TriplePundit was required to write about the experience. Opinions are our own.

Renee Farris headshot

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

Read more stories by Renee Farris