When Carnival, the world’s largest cruise operator, invited Julie Schear to try out its new social impact cruise, she says she was excited. “This was a really great idea to afford people a new kind of vacation and a new way of cruising.”

Fathom by Carnival, enables travelers to experience the culture of the Dominican Republic while volunteering in activities like planting trees, building water filters and laying concrete floors. Carnival offered Schear, a Florida-based travel agent, a free cruise to see if she would want to sell it to her customers. However, Schear wasn’t convinced her clients would go for it. “For the typical American family where mom and dad have two weeks of vacation a year, are they really going to spend their money to go on a cruise to have to volunteer? To have to work?”

Turns out, Schear loved her experience on Fathom so much that she paid to go back a second time with her family. “What I wasn’t prepared for was the impact that it would have on me,” she says. “I thought I was going to give and actually I got more than I gave.”

Fathom cruise ship docked in the Dominican Republic. (Credit: Julie Schear)
Fathom cruise ship docked in the Dominican Republic. (Credit: Julie Schear)

On her second cruise, Schear met Jacob Kushner, a journalist investigating the social impact of the cruises for Vice magazine. “It became clear to me right away that most, if not all, the people who did the volunteer activities thought it was an incredible experience,” Kushner tells us. “But as I inquired further to try to get to the bottom of whether Fathom’s statements about what it was achieving was true, I found some discrepancies between what Fathom had said about the activities and what had actually happened.”

Kushner aboard Carnival's social impact cruise, Fathom. (Credit: Jacob Kushner)
Kushner aboard Carnival’s social impact cruise, Fathom. (Credit: Jacob Kushner)

For instance, after participating in volunteer activities like making water filters and laying cement floors in the homes of poor residents, Kushner returned to those sites after the cruise was over. He wanted to see if the tourists had actually had the impact the cruise operator had promised. He discovered that the recipients were not as needy as portrayed by the tour organizers. In this podcast, Kushner describes what he found and Schear explains why she still recommends the cruise despite Kushner’s findings.

UPDATE: Just as we posted this podcast, we learned that Carnival has announced that it will end its Fathom social impact cruises in the summer of 2017. However, the cruise operator has started to offer passengers volunteer options on six other Carnival cruises.

Additional Resources:

Tiny Spark’s Global Health Volunteering: Billions of Dollars Few Rules

Kushner on Twitter

Shear on Instagram

Jacob Kushner’s Vice article: “Americans Are Getting Their Voluntourism Fix on a New Carnival Cruise.”

Fathom’s website: What is impact travel?

Kushner’s New York Times article: The Voluntourist’s Dilemma

NPR article: As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?

Feature image: Julie Schear in the Dominican Republic. (Credit: Julie Schear)