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.

Voluntourism and The Rise of Customer Social Responsibility (CSR)

Ritz Carlton1 April 2013 marks the 5th anniversary of Give Back Getaways – the voluntourism program of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC. Although many will view this as part of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement that began in the 1980s, what it really represents is a major breakthrough in the customer social responsibility movement – a very different type of CSR movement – that has emerged in the 21st Century.

“Customersourcing” through voluntourism and voluntourism-esque experiences, much like the crowdsourcing of Wikipedia and other content aggregators, engages customers in learning about and serving a common social responsibility objective, of course. Yet, by combining travel to and within the context of destinations and/or supply chains, companies are significantly deepening the level of exposure their customers have to different aspects of the companies themselves. Take, for example, Whole Journeys, a program set up by Whole Foods Market, to engage its customers with its supply chains in different communities around the world.

Questions arise as to whether customers, volunteers in essence, can make a contribution in addressing the challenges that destinations and communities face across the globe. They are, after all, volunteers – virtually untrained and “on vacation.” What has been, and continues to be, missed by those who are trying to measure the effectiveness, or more appropriately, the lack thereof, of customers stepping into these environments is how much more valuable these customersourcing experiences could be if they were better designed, better configured with the input of the communities and the organizations serving as liaisons.

Fast Company reported this past week that in the March 2013 issue of Methods in Ecology and Evolution that researchers discovered the value of volunteers collecting data; in fact, the authors made the following comment in the original article entitled “Comparing diversity data collected using a protocol designed for volunteers with results from a professional alternative“:

Our results provide evidence that less standardized survey protocols used by volunteer programs may give results that are broadly consistent with those based on methods used by professional scientists.”

[Source: “Comparing diversity data collected using a protocol designed for volunteers with results from a professional alternative,” Methods in Ecology and Evolution, March 2013, p. 8]

Rather than sensationalize the results of this study, it is simply worth noting that a specific protocol was designed for volunteers that allowed them to conduct their work in a manner that resulted in levels of accuracy and efficiency similar to that of professionals. There is nothing to suggest that customers could not also be placed in situations which would afford them the same opportunity. Customer social responsibility, therefore, can be improved by altering the manner in which they interface with the social responsibility challenge to be addressed.

Final Thoughts…

Customer social responsibility and customersourcing are in the early stages of their unfoldment. Voluntourism is at the forefront of this movement and represents a significant living laboratory to be studied as new such programs emerge, are evaluated, and eventually modified. With each voluntourism niche – be it dive voluntourism, coffee voluntourism, surf voluntourism, or luxury voluntourism, the base of socially responsible customers continues to grow. With a willingness to learn and share as we move along, this young CSR movement will evolve much more quickly and effectively than its predecessors. In the meantime, let’s continue to recognize the companies making an effort to engage their customers in socially responsible ways, remembering that pursuit of perfection begins with practice.