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.

Can Voluntourism Get More #F—ing Creative Please?

I have been taken by a couple of campaigns addressing real-world, societal challenges of our day, which have surfaced across the planet over the last bit of time. These campaigns are creative. These campaigns are poignant. These campaigns speak to us with the veracity of being, and that vociferously!

A question is raised, however: “Why do we not see more #F—ing creativity in the voluntourism space?!?”


#notabugsplat Campaign Image

Campaign #1: Anti-Drone Campaign in Pakistan – #notabugsplat

Talk about creative!

I am absolutely humbled by what the people of Pakistan have coordinated through this effort with French artists to bring humanity, not just U.S. drone operators, to an awareness of the toll that force-based, drone strikes have on non-combatant populations. awakens us to an issue that few of us question.

I do not know the first thing about how to address this issue. What I do know, from the information on the website, is that a group of French artists traveled to Pakistan and collaborated with the local community and with the Foundation for Fundamental Rights to place this photo on the ground – talk about a unique and utterly creative expression of voluntourism!

Campaign #2: Addressing Poverty – #fuckthepoor

#fuckthepoorIt isn’t every day that we use the “f—” word to express our disdain with the challenges associated with raising funds to address poverty. Yet, the clever folks at the Pilion Trust Charity decided to brave the streets of London with a gentleman dressed as you see on the right. The responses from Londoners were, as you might imagine, a bit on the “how dare you!” side. Of course, when the sign is turned over, and the gentleman asks for donations to “help the poor,” virtually no one steps forward.

I wonder, on some level, if this is what is happening with voluntourism. I do not think that voluntourists would don t-shirts when they head to Haiti or Uganda or India with the words “#F— The Poor” on them. But would it be such a bad idea to get the attention of the “naysayers” of the world who feel as though voluntourists do nothing? Contribute nothing? Sustain nothing?

Final Thoughts…

I am not one to say that voluntourism is “THE” answer to addressing the challenges of our day. However, I do think because we are virtually non-creative when it comes to voluntourism that we really are not yet able to see what voluntourism can do.

We seem to follow in the footsteps of so many other efforts to volunteer and serve that have been happening around the world for decades, if not centuries. When are we going to step forward and really start tapping into the co-creative energy of a growing body of humans who really do give a damn?!? So much so that they will give part, if not all, of their holiday/vacation to volunteer in a given destination. Must we continue to demand that they do these things according to some “standard”? Instead of pushing the limits of our creativity and exploring what may be possible?

I keep hearing the word innovation and I am just not seeing it in the voluntourism space. We keep wanting to align our efforts with “development/aid” or with “charity” or with “alternative breaks” or “teaching English.” How unoriginal is that?!? We want voluntourism to look familiar, safe, and non-controversial. WHY?!? Why are we so wedded to voluntourism being like everything else that already exists in the world?

I want to see more of what the two campaigns referenced above represent in the voluntourism space. I want to see us pushing the boundaries of our creative capacity and start thinking about collaborations with communities like that expressed by #NotABugSplat. If it takes voluntourists wearing t-shirts that say #F—ThePoor, well, does the means justify the end? If it gets us to be more creative in our approaches to voluntourism, perhaps a global social experiment is indeed in order!

I also think that one of the most under-valued realizations of voluntourism are the voluntourists who return to their respective homes. Creativity for these folks is utterly non-existent! Start connecting with the fire in the belly of those who have been moved by these experiences. Sear the hearts of indifference with the heat of new-found awareness pumping through the blood of these voluntourists! Stop seeing voluntourism as a short-term travel/holiday and understand that quite a number of returned voluntourists have new perspectives on that which is unfolding in this world of ours. See voluntourism beyond the footprint of the journey. See it for the step before the next step in the life-journey of the voluntourist and that of the community residents who host them!