Last year, Carnival Corporation announced their newest cruise venture, Fathom. This voluntourism-focused brand promised cruise-goers a chance to “do good” in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Their commitment to projects that, in their words, “contribute to local economic development, education and environmental initiatives” seemed well-intentioned. But at Discover Corps, we are experts in sustainable, culturally sensitive short-term volunteering. As such, we were more than a little skeptical of this news.
Would a massive company like Carnival really be willing to put integrity before profit? How could meaningful volunteering be translated to a floating resort carrying more than 700 travelers at a time?
As it turns out, it couldn’t be. Just last week, Carnival announced that Fathom, the Do-Good Cruise Line, would be phased out after less than a year of operation. And while we’re honestly sad to see this happen, we’re not surprised.
Here’s a breakdown of why, in our opinion, mass tourism and volunteer travel simply don’t complement one another.
Impact on the Local Economy
The most effective, impactful and sustainable volunteer trips are planned with overall contribution to the local economy at the forefront of every choice. By designing trips that utilize locally-owned and operated restaurants, excursion providers and accommodations, the economy of the host community is buoyed by the presence of short-term volunteers.
At Discover Corps, we are committed to using the buying power of our travelers to support local organizations and entrepreneurs. But when you look at major tourism operators like cruise lines or mega resorts, these decisions are not made to maximize the impact in host communities.
Mass tourism operators are usually owned by foreign investors. They purchase food in mass quantities from the cheapest possible outlet—very rarely from the community in which they are located. They employ individuals from all over the world, but tend to recruit English-speakers from developed areas, leaving only the lowest-paid positions to be filled by local people.
The small restaurants and hotels that keep tourism alive in the developing world are largely ignored by mass tourism, as these large resorts and cruises have their own array of lodging options and restaurants on-site.
Frequently, those same foreign investors also own the organizations that they choose to partner with to provide their guests excursion activities, like ziplining or snorkeling. This increases their profit margins, but ignores and draws support away from local providers that offer similar activities. This stands in stark contrast to the positive impact that intentionally-designed volunteer travel provides.
Group Size Matters
In the case of Fathom, which sailed with up to 704 passengers on board, the sheer number of volunteers working in a single, developing region is cause for concern.
Volunteer work is most effective when the organization or project being supported can balance the number of new volunteers with regular employees and local volunteers. This is especially true in the case of voluntourism, where volunteer travelers are not always familiar with local customs or motivations.
More often than not, the grassroots NGOs and organizations that are doing the most important work in developing areas are small ventures. Intentionally and strategically lean, these operations are able to embed themselves within communities and get to the heart of their biggest areas for growth.
In order for major tourism organizations to meaningfully support these community groups, they could send only a handful of volunteers to work with each one. For Fathom, that would have required partnering with between 50-100 local organizations—a near impossible task.
Instead, they opted to include significantly fewer partners, and gave volunteers the opportunity to take turns working with them. But they still likely had volunteer group sizes that well surpassed their partner organizations’ ability to meaningfully engage them.
One common criticism of voluntourism is that the short-term volunteer placements do not allow travelers to understand the nuances of the community, and therefore they remain unaware of how to truly impact the community through their efforts.
While we believe that short-term projects can be purposeful and important if they are ethically designed, there are very few projects that could benefit from hundreds of volunteers who each contribute only a handful of hours of work each.
When cruises or major resorts offer voluntourism opportunities as excursions, each participant is spending only ½ to 1 day with the partner organization’s project before moving onto the next port or returning to the comforts of their private oasis. Then, the following day or week, hundreds of new volunteers appear and the cycle continues.
If the purpose of a vacation is to make a positive impact on a community in-need, then the vacation should take place in the community itself—allowing the volunteer to further immerse themselves in their project and to allow them to spend more time working on it.
Looking to Relax
The final reason that we’re skeptical that mass tourism and volunteer travel can work together is that, for most people who book resort vacations, large group tours, or cruises, vacation is viewed as a time to relax and unwind.
The reason that mass tourism is so popular- cruises alone are a $40 billion industry worldwide- is that people often seek all-inclusive experiences that allow them to kick up their feet up and relax on their breaks from work. It’s understandable. Who doesn’t love to pamper themselves and truly unplug for a few days?
The reality, though, is that these mass tourism experiences are a far cry from your average volunteer trip.
We believe that it’s possible to have the best of both worlds, which Discover Corps offers in our Vacations with Purpose, but the average guest on a cruise or at a large resort is not looking to give back to their host community. In fact, many never even leave the ship or resort grounds!
For travelers who are searching for opportunities to make a difference and really “do good”, it’s more likely that they’ll search directly for volunteer experiences abroad—not book a cruise or resort package that includes optional afternoon volunteer excursions.
And that’s ok. There’s more than enough room in the nearly $8 trillion travel industry for both. -Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.