Bold Voluntourism Move by Carnival: Will Critics Sink Its Fathom Bid?

Fathom LogoCruise Lines have been toying with voluntourism for nearly a decade now. I first covered this story back in 2007 when I interviewed Jeff Krida, head of Cruise West at the time, who was responsible for launching the line’s voluntourism program. Sweet, a travel company catering to Lesbians, had a six-year run (filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the US in 2014) with voluntourism cruises starting in New Orleans with ports of call in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and Roatan, Honduras. Crystal Cruises launched their voluntourism program – “You Care, We Care” – just around the turn of the most recent decade, and has continued to build on this with each passing year – adding volunteer shore excursions at different destinations. And now, the latest entry on the list, Carnival Corp.

According to the press release on this, Tara Russell will be heading up this truly bold voluntourism move by Carnival. It will not be an easy task.

Enduring the Criticism

The social media vitriol will be difficult to ignore. Academics & students, NGO practitioners, aid & development workers, and a host of others will take swipes at Carnival, as they have at just about every effort the travel & tourism industry has made to integrate volunteering into their product and service offerings. Since Ian Birrell landed his punches against the tourism sector with the anti-orphanage voluntourism piece in The Observer back in 2010, the condescending, withering tones of the better-informed have been directed towards the travel & tourism field, any for-profit company really, advancing into the helping business. The barrage has been incessant, unwavering, and filled with good intentions gone to Hell.

How well Ms. Russell and Carnival handle this pressure will go a long way into telling us to what degree this is a true social investment for the brand.

Unlike the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, which launched its voluntourism program – Give Back Getaways – prior to the 2008 Global Economic Meltdown – April 2008 to be exact, Carnival is a latecomer to the world voluntourism stage. Seven years later, Give Back Getaways is still a corporate cultural expression of its Community Footprints social responsibility effort. The company has not deviated from this. Carnival, on the other hand, is stepping into a very different environment, one that features great skepticism regarding the outcomes and impacts of short-term voluntary service. Will we see Fathom seven years from now, despite the criticism the company will endure?

Will Cruisers Pay?

And, of course, there is the bigger question: Will clients pay to volunteer on a cruise?

Most cruise-based voluntourism programs have engaged travelers in free, half-day and day-long volunteer activities in different destinations. Instead of participating in other shore excursions, cruise passengers have elected to volunteer in numerous roles – refurbishing schools, construction, environmental projects – the list is long and varied. Payments, however, have been minimal. Individuals have most often paid money in the form of donations to support projects into the future. The scheme being used by Carnival’s Fathom looks to be quite different, perhaps taking some inputs from Mercy Ships, among others, which have engaged volunteers in longer-term, at-sea experiences.

These trips will not be free. They will be an estimated $230 per day/per person. In our research at, we found the price point for voluntourism to be somewhere between $100 – $150USD per day/per person, all-inclusive. Of course, this is an average, and not necessarily representative of higher-end travelers willingness to pay. But, this price tag could cut out the Millennials who are the audience most likely to participate in voluntourism according to the latest research from Chase.

Final Thoughts…The Importance of Transparency

In the 15 years I have covered voluntourism, I have seen many programs launched by the travel industry. Often, these programs are put forth in response to market-driven forces – consumers, after all, want to give back. It is a rare few which are put forth as a socially responsible integration with holistic sustainability objectives established at the C-Suite level.

If this is indeed the latter, then Carnival may be onto something. It will be an endurance contest in the beginning – Ms. Russell and the Carnival Team will be front-loaded with skeptics. The good news is that Carnival has a number of ways to approach skeptics as the days, weeks, and months progress.


From the very beginning, Carnival can track the social impact footprint of their efforts. These results can be published for all to review. They can follow this with testimonials from the host communities and from participants alike. They can be utterly and completely transparent from the start – how many jobs are they creating for local residents? What socio-economic outcomes stay within the communities? Does, for example, a greater percentage of their revenues find its way into the host communities, as compared to those generated by other product & service offerings in other markets?

Reporting of results will be what consumers and critics and host communities will want to see. Is Carnival ready to share these details with the planet? It may be the only way Carnival can ensure that the company and its clients truly make a difference.

U.S. National Parks 100th! — How Will It Change Voluntourism Forever?

25 August 2016.

If you haven’t done so already, mark your calendars for the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. National Parks.

In the meantime, the lead up to the Centennial may prove to be one of the most significant milestones in the ongoing evolution of Voluntourism. If there was ever a time for the “Developed World” to show humanity that Voluntourism is more than just a sport for Northerners going South, then this may be that moment.

I would wager that pretty much every large multinational corporation and hospitality & tourism company will be aligning itself with the U.S. National Parks Centennial Celebration – – demonstrating its own form of corporate social responsibility. Billions of dollars in cash and in-kind (e.g., volunteering) contributions will likely be earmarked over the next 16 – 18 months for brands and their employees to share in all that the U.S. National Parks represent – the environment, recreation, memories, iconic scenery – and so much, MUCH, more!

We will see an unprecedented wave of volunteering reverberating throughout the United States as people from all over the world will be drawn to do their part to pitch-in and infuse these heritage sites with maintenance, renovations, and even new structures and trails, as well as leave a legacy for the next 100 years’ worth of visitors. Voluntour groups with their commemorative Centennial t-shirts will be heading to National Parks in swarms, generating selfies with historic structures, trees, cacti, geysers, mudpots, mountains, bisons, and bears that will make the orphan voluntourism selfies on Tinder envious beyond measure.

Voluntourism critics will be hard-pressed to wrangle support for ending anything related to voluntourism in U.S. National Parks. And, when all is said and done, we should have an abundance of contributions for voluntourism (and voluntourists) #worthyofimitation.

Lest we get carried away here, let’s take a moment to explore how this Centennial could shift the global perception of voluntourism. There are really three central points that come to mind when we consider the implications. First, Voluntourism will have a new geography – the Global North. Second, Voluntourism will be aligned with the environment, nature, preservation, and legacy. And third, Voluntourism may have a significant chance to quantify its socio-economic contribution to communities.

Voluntourism in the Global North

One of the great voluntourism myths of the past decade has been that voluntourists move from the North to the South only. It simply isn’t true. Probably the most comprehensive study on voluntourism was conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics back in 2008. The findings revealed that of the approximately 4.7 million Americans who volunteered more than 120 miles from their home in 2007, roughly 3.7 million of them did so domestically – a mere 1.056 million did so internationally. So 3 out of every 4 American voluntourists didn’t show up in orphanages in Cambodia or South Africa or Nepal, or anywhere else in the world. They showed up in places like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and, as you might have guessed, in U.S. National Parks.

In the next 18 months, the U.S. National Parks will give us a chance to remind our planet once more that voluntourism is as much (if not more so) a Global North-North phenomenon as it is a Global North-South phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this will not be an easy myth to dismiss. Nonetheless, this may be the best opportunity, sans the gravity of a natural disaster, to ever present itself for those who see real value in Global North voluntourism.

Voluntourism Aligned with the Environment, Nature, Preservation, and Legacy

Voluntourism in the U.S. National Parks is another chance to do some myth-busting, with a shift from the global perception that voluntourists are orphanage-bound and child-assistance-centric in their motivations. In all of our research over the past decade, we have found that more voluntourists are interested in supporting the environment than any other cause or issue. Certainly, one would think this would have some sex-appeal, given the state of the world’s natural habitats, global climate change, and the rise of environmental disasters. Yet, it seems to go unnoticed in social media and in the media in general.

Having the U.S. National Parks as a major focus for voluntourism over the next 18 months will give bloggers and journalists, tweeters and likers, Mashers and Redditors a chance to shine some light on Mother Nature, U.S. history, and some really amazing stories about some significantly beautiful expressions of what humanity can do when it puts its mind to preservation and the establishment of legacies for future generations.

Socio-Economic Impact of Voluntourism?

This third item requires a question mark. Why, you may ask? The only way that we will be able to know to what extent voluntourism really is a socio-economic contributor is by measuring it. The U.S. National Parks, along with all of the stakeholders that move voluntourists in and out of National Parks over the next 18 months, and voluntourists themselves, will need to measure the socio-economic footprint of all voluntourists. Besides just some general demographic information, we want to know answers to some really important questions:

  1. Where do voluntourists go?
  2. What do voluntourists do when they get to these parks?
  3. How long do voluntourists stay?
  4. How many jobs are created as a result of their presence in the Parks and surrounding communities?
  5. Do voluntourists volunteer in places other than the Parks, i.e., do they volunteer in a nearby community as well?
  6. How much does a typical voluntourist spend?
  7. Do voluntourists volunteer and tour?
  8. How many voluntourists design their own experiences and how many utilize the services of a coordinating entity?
  9. What impacts are felt as a result of their presence (positive & negative)?
  10. Are there notable distinctions between voluntourists and regular tourists?

And, of course, there are many more rich questions which can and ought to be explored. The BIG question, obviously, is this: “Will the stakeholders, including the U.S. National Parks, take the time to set up a mechanism for measuring the influx of voluntourists and all that accompanies their influx?”

Final Thoughts…

The Centennial Celebration of the U.S. National Parks really can change the way we attend to voluntourism across our planet. The chance to measure, to prod, to poke, to inspect, to dissect voluntourism, and to engage numerous stakeholders in the process, is beyond unprecedented!

Most U.S. National Parks, for example, will have cellular telephone service which provides us the option to use GPS location, instant messaging, blogging, and social media in real-time to garner a broad-spectrum snapshot of what is happening in the context of voluntary service and travel. With 401 U.S. National Parks to choose from, voluntourists will be able to adjust their movements, especially, if we keep a running tabulation of which Parks are receiving more support. We can, in essence, develop a comprehensive, fully-aware system of voluntourism that can literally learn from itself. Running tabulations of service and expenditure can be shared across the entire gamut of individuals, families, corporations, nature clubs, social networks – anyone interested in voluntourism in U.S. National Parks –  and the global community at large.

The effort must be comprehensive, it must have the support of stakeholders – ALL stakeholders, and it must have the collective vision of a planet interested in seeing what voluntourism can do when we do it consciously, seamlessly, with a sincere interest to unleash its potential!


Qantas Voluntourism Video – It’s All About “Perspective”

QantasQantas has posted a short (44 seconds in length) video on voluntourism on Vimeo. The video tells us much about the more reserved approach that I think corporations, particularly from the tourism sector, will be taking with voluntourism in the time ahead. Qantas makes use of a cartoon interface, emphasizes “perspective” not “difference-making,” and puts the responsibility on the voluntourist.

Let’s look at these briefly and discuss the importance of each.

The Cartoon Interface

The Qantas team behind this video is either incredibly brilliant, intuitive, or a combination of both. The cartoon interface makes voluntourism feel as though it is approachable, no matter who you are. However, if you are a young person considering this as a travel option, then the video makes it seem accessible and fun.

Emphasizing “Perspective” Not “Difference-Making”

The use of the word “perspective,” as in “seeing the world from a different perspective,” takes away the language of “making a difference” or some of the other immortalizing heroics of one’s altruistic self shared in the aftermath of a volunteering adventure to another part of the world. Emphasizing “perspective” softens the potential backlash from the development assistance community and reduces the pressure which anyone who is considering volunteering in a different part of the world might experience. You don’t have to “make a difference” – you can simply enjoy a new “perspective” on places that others may have visited before you. This “perspective” is something you will take with you regardless of the “outcome” of your experience.

Voluntourism Is “Your” Responsibility

Again, Qantas does a brilliant job of placing the responsibility on the voluntourist. The video references three different types of experiences and features a frame with five possible options, yet it manages to leave the decision-making and the responsibility of choosing to the individual voluntourist. It is “your” choice, after all, and Qantas is not about to take that away from folks.

Final Thoughts…

Although the link to the Qantas website ( is not yet active, I imagine that this will be remedied in the days to come. Qantas is tapping into something that mainstream corporate social responsibility has not been able to broach – consumer social responsibility. As a vehicle for supporting consumers to engage in assisting the world around them, Qantas changes its role from the traditionally advanced responsible corporate citizen to facilitator of consumer responsibility.

If companies like Qantas begin to measure the assistance delivered by their consumers, we may actually have a more robust picture of what is happening in the world around us. It only takes a “checkbox” on the reservation form when people are filling out their reservations. If Qantas begins such a practice, other airlines will follow. And, if all of the airlines give us an indication of how many folks are checking that little box for “volunteering” or “voluntourism” or whatever Qantas decides to use to set the bar, we will have some very valuable information to share.

It only takes one company to start measuring consumer social responsibility through voluntourism. Think of the line item appearing in the end of the year CSR Report – a company can mention how it has facilitated the engagement of consumers in volunteering abroad – “how many consumers used your company’s service to volunteer?” is a great starting point. Thus, there is but one question left to be asked: “Will Qantas be the first?”