I started writing about my experience with Fathom Travel immediately when I got back to Miami from the trip to the Dominican Republic. I got about 200 words into my thoughts when I realized that I needed to let things soak in a little bit. I needed to take a step back and try to understand what my Fathom experience meant, and what it could mean to those looking to join a trip with the cruise line. I think that’s important to do. In today’s world of blogging so many of our words are knee jerk, so many of our thoughts are spilled out on paper; written high on emotion. I wanted to let my emotions come back down to earth before writing this article.
What is Fathom Travel
Of course, before I can get into this piece, I need to talk about the brand. Fathom Travel is a cruise line – under the umbrella of Carnival Cruises – that has started running trips down to the Caribbean for cultural and humanitarian purposes. In fact, Fathom became the first American cruise line to visit Cuba in nearly 40 years recently. The idea of the trips are to use mass tourism to make a difference. Instead of lounging on the beach, or swimming with dolphins, guest have the opportunity to take part in “impact activities” such as tree planting, pouring cement, teaching English, or making water filters.
Of course, whenever there’s a really quick hit style of volunteering like this, there are critics. And some of them are justified. I have some thoughts.
Criticisms of the Voluntourism Model
I’m going to start off diving into a couple criticisms not to be cynical, but because I love the idea of tourism for change and positive impact, and I want to see it succeed.
- Positive vs. Negative Impact: We have to try to look at the balance. Is this trip having more of a positive impact, than a negative one? The positive impact is clear and obvious. During the time we were there, we gave 3 new houses cement floors that didn’t have them before. We planted a couple thousand trees. We gave dozens of students, and people in the community a chance to learn a bit of English. But what were the negative impacts? Did we take jobs away from other people? Did our being there have a negative environmental impact? Which way did the positive vs. negative impact see-saw sway? I think it was to the positive side.
- Fish vs. Teaching to Fish: A lot of what we were doing sort of fell in the category of handing out fish rather than teaching people how to fish. And, with mass voluntourism that’s really just the nature of the beast. Instead of teaching about the harms of deforestation, we’re planting trees, for example. But, that type of educational development can’t happen though mass voluntourism, it has to be done at a grassroots or governmental level. At the very worst, though, I suppose you can say that our impact there is setting a positive example.
- Taking Jobs from Locals: This is always a critique of voluntourism, and something I saw a lot in Africa. Believe me when I tell you that the local people didn’t need 20 of us to pour cement at their house. With the money spent to take part in that activity, they likely could have poured 3 houses and paid local people to do the work. It would have had a much greater impact. But, people want to feel a part of the change rather than just give money, and I get that. We want to help.
- Environmental Sustainability: My biggest criticism of Fathom is the lack of an effort at environmental sustainability on the boat itself. I really didn’t sense any urgency among the people on the boat to preach environmental sustainability.
- What’s Carnival Doing?: Fathom is under the umbrella of Carnival. And well Carnival should be praised for making an effort with this type of cruise line, I’d like to see them make positive impact changes as well. Not doing so is almost like saying “we know it’s wrong, and we have one boat doing right, so we’re allowed to keep doing things that have a negative impact”. I’d love to see Carnival start incorporating some positive impact into their trips.
What I Loved About My Fathom Experience
When I’m talking about the positives of my Fathom experience I want to focus on my time spent on the ship. Obviously, there was a lot of good that happened once we arrived in Puerto Plata, but the ship itself was actually fascinating to me.
- Focus on Education: I was extremely pleased to see the focus on education on board the boat. I touch on this a little bit later in the article. But, for me the most important thing that happened on this trip was the education provided to guests on board. There were seminars on personal growth, storytelling, social impact, etc. And, each of the seminars I attended was fantastic. The staff that Fathom has brought on to run these things is wonderful. They all have backgrounds in non-profit, or something similar, and they were great. Those who attended the seminars got a lot out of them.
- Focus on Community: The small size of the ship, and the way things were organized really lent to a sense of community. By the end of the trip, nearly everyone knew each other – most by name. There was this beautiful sense of community on board that you don’t feel on other big cruises. Of course, it helps that most of the people on board are fairly like-minded people.
- The People: Speaking of the people, my god! I made some lifelong friends on board. And yes, this was a bit different as a lot of the people on board were media so we had things in common, but I am so thankful that I got to spend so much time with these awesome people. As I mentioned in the paragraph before, too, this type of trip lends to people being very like-minded which is fun.
- The Staff: It needs to be said that the staff of the ship was amazing. Nora, who looked after myself and my room was a legend. Such a great human being.
The Bigger Picture
Something that was really important for me was trying to keep my mind on the bigger picture. At times, in these voluntourism situations, it can feel like you’re having such a minor impact. For example, I only taught 1 hour of English, and it was likely closer to 30 minutes of actual teaching and learning. So, in the small sample, what is 30 minutes? Really, it’s nothing. However. when you step back and think that these kids will be receiving tutoring 2-3 times a week over an entire year, that’s a big impact. Same goes for the cement in the houses. A lot of us after pouring cement in the community felt like we could have done more. We could have done 2 houses, probably! But, what’s only 1 house in a day quickly turns into 100-200 houses in a year, and that’s huge.
Focusing on the bigger picture also means remembering what your positive change can do to inspire people within the community. For example, when we were pouring cement, there was a boy who was about 14 years old. Apparently, he saw the people pouring cement the day before and asked if he could help out. Then, there he was with us the next day, lending a helping hand. The beauty of positive change and community is infectious and its addicting. I really hope that people in the communities will see how easy it is to lend a hand and that positivity can snowball.
The Most Important Impact
When we were done tutoring English, one of the local NGO facilitators asked guest how they felt about things. One lady spoke up and said that “this was the most meaningful, amazing thing I’ve done in my life.”
And I had a bit of a hard time hearing that at first. I mean, if those 30 minutes teaching English were the most meaningful in your life, well, that makes me feel a bit sad. I mean, are people really so unversed in the world of being a good human being, of helping out people in need?
But then after thinking about it a little bit, I realized: that’s the impact.
The impact that Fathom Travel is making, as much as we might want to act like it’s in the Dominican Republic, is on the people on the boat. It’s these people on the boat who might not have been bold enough before to leave their homes, their comfortable bubbles, to go out in the world and make a positive impact, have an opportunity to do it in a way that feels so safe to them. It gives them a taste of how good it feels, how easy it is, and how inspiring it can be to do go. And hopefully their Fathom experience can work as a gateway drug into the world of positive impact. Maybe this trip inspires them to go back to their city and help at a soup kitchen, to tutor a kid in need, or to join the Big Brothers or Big Sisters program. That’s the impact. That’s what makes this trip so special.
Some Photos from My Fathom Experience
Here are a handful of some of my favourite photos take during the week-long trip to the Dominican Republic with Fathom Travel.
Rounding it up
Being someone who has travelled to nearly 100 countries, who has driven a scooter down Africa, spent time in Haiti, and seen some of the most poverty-stricken places on the planet, I was taken aback by the level of shock some people had seeing the conditions in the Dominican Republic. I mean, for me, the conditions for most weren’t even that bad. But people were blown away, anguished, and amazed.
Fathom was their eye opener. It was their way to push their bubble a little bit more, and get out and educate themselves on the reality outside of their comfortable lives. I think first step into the real world is just so important, and if it’s a cruise ship that has to get people there, I’m all for it.
One thing I would love to see from Fathom is on the return journey find a way to bring it home for people. “You’ve seen how easy you can make an impact, these are some ideas for how you can make an impact at home”. We shouldn’t need to cruise across a sea to make a difference, we can make one every day. So, take what you’ve learned on the ship, and in the Dominican and take it home with you.
What’s Next on the Travel Photography Blog
I’m back in Europe now. If you want to stay up to date with things, check out my near daily vlogs on my YouTube Channel. Right now I’m in Kotor, Montenegro and that’s likely where the next article is coming from.