Fathoming the impacts of do-gooder cruises

Women at Chocal in the Dominican Republic prepare cacao beans for making chocolate for sale.
Women at Chocal in the Dominican Republic prepare cacao beans for making chocolate for sale.

Considering the hard labor required to pour concrete over dirt floors in rural Dominican Republic houses or to haul heavy bags for reforesting the hills, I will make other choices if I book an “impact tourism” week on the new Fathom cruise line.

Volunteering to make a difference during vacation appeals to my better nature, but I don’t want to work that hard. How about making chocolate, building water filters, or helping teach basic English phrases in local schools?

All of these projects are among the volunteer activities that will highlight a cruise with Fathom, starting in April, when its only ship, the 700-passenger Adonia, begins one-week voyages from Miami into the Caribbean.

On alternate weeks, the ship will make its only stop for three nights at Amber Cove near Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. Passengers, if they so choose, will be put to work performing tasks that the cruise line says will have a positive impact on the lives of local residents. The choices include improving healthy living conditions (concrete floors and cleaner water), educational opportunities for children (English), and increased profitability for small businesses (chocolate, coffee and other exports).

The Fathom program for the line’s Dominican Republic voyages is much more work-oriented than current plans for Cuba cruises that will start in May (probably). Every other week, the ship will head from Miami to Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba. For now, those passengers are expected to participate in people-to-people gatherings and also to meet artists, musicians, small business owners and health workers to learn about Cuban society.

Still in flux is what eventually will happen on Fathom’s Cuba cruises. Fathom president Tara Russell says the cruise line intends for the Cuba voyages, like the ones to the Dominican Republic, to have an impact on the lives of island residents. Rules and agreements still are in negotiation, and political issues between Cuba and the United States may interfere.

On cruises to both destinations, Fathom also plans a series of onboard activities centered on life and needs in the two countries. Passengers who will be working in the Dominican Republic will be required to attend training workshops.

$1,800 to $2,710 Per-person fare for cheapest staterooms on a Fathom cruise to Cuba, plus estimated $500 in taxes and fees

Rates on Fathom, one of 10 cruise brands owned by Carnival Corp., vary substantially between the two destinations. Fathom’s Cuba educational and cultural exchange cruises will cost roughly twice as much as the Dominican Republic volunteer work cruises, which in turn cost roughly twice as much as a typical discounted Caribbean cruise with Carnival.

For the Dominican Republic, Adonia rates for inside cabins range, depending on the season, from $974 - $1,465 per person for two people; outside cabins $1,338 to $1,829; balcony cabins $1,702 to $2,193.

For Cuba voyages, rates for inside cabins range from $1,800 to $2,710 per person for two people; outside cabins $2,470 to $3,380; balcony cabins $3,150 to $4,050. The Cuba rates do not include taxes, fees, and port expenses that are still in negotiation; they are estimated at about $500 per person. Suites also are available.

Fathom expects to entice single travelers and guarantees them a roommate, if they want, so they will be charged the same per-person rate as couples. Ordinarily, single travelers in a two-person cabin pay 150 percent of the one-person rate if they want to be housed alone. If Fathom fails to match an individual with another single traveler of the same gender, the company says it will allow the single traveler to room alone without an extra charge.

Russell said a portion of every fare will go to partner organizations in the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the form of donations to cover on-the-ground activities.

Sending hundreds of do-gooder travelers to the Dominican Republic every two weeks, housing and feeding them on a comfortable cruise ship, is new.

Here is an example: In the Dominican Republic, many homes do not have running water; access to water either is expensive or of questionable cleanliness. Fathom has a contract with Doc Hendley, founder of Wine to Water, whose company distributes ceramic water filters that help prevent waterborne disease. From passenger fares, Fathom will pay the $50 cost of materials — clay, sawdust and colloidal silver — and processing for each new filter created by passengers. Materials are measured, mixed, pressed into a pot, and fired in a kiln. The sawdust burns out to create small holes that filter out organic contaminants while the silver kills bacteria in and around the filter.

Fathom passengers will work two days to build each filter, which will be given to a family in need. Each filter will provide enough drinking water, 99 percent pure, for a family of five for up to five years.

Another example: In the hills above Puerto Plata, 18 women work at the Chocal chocolate factory, which was formed by women to help provide for their families. Fathom passengers will carry bags of cocoa beans, clean the beans, and work at the cacao nursery, where seedlings are fertilized organically so the chocolate can be sold as organic products. A Fathom spokesperson said that this company is understaffed, but cannot hire more workers because it must use its income to repay government loans that got the business started. 

Volunteering to work in less fortunate places of the world is not a new concept. However, sending hundreds of do-gooder travelers to the Dominican Republic every two weeks — housing and feeding them in relatively swankier circumstances on a cruise ship — is new.

Some critics see irony in Carnival Corp., which has made a fortune selling hedonism at sea, being the first major company to try to make a buck from do-gooder cruising. But Russell and others at Carnival Corp. emphasize the value in having a for-profit company such as Fathom in charge of volunteer vacations.

Arnold Donald, president of Carnival Corp., clearly wanted Fathom to be a “market driven” cruise line that would sell volunteer vacations to people because that kind of vacation is what they want to buy.

Carnival has developed a thoughtful business plan for Fathom, which has the advantage of a safe and comfortable bed for cruisers each night, full breakfast and dinner each day aboard ship, as well as fun at sea for the nearly three days out of six when passengers are not working in the Dominican Republic. Adonia also will offer more typical shore excursions, because passengers are under no obligation to work. Still, as one news reporter commented, passengers on a ship expected to attract a do-gooder crowd probably would feel like a crumb if they don’t volunteer for some work.

Fathom folks say they are designing a website for passengers to check back on their chosen project after their vacations to see how things are going.

When you go home and your friends ask you what you did on your cruise, perhaps you’ll find the most memorable experience was ashore, working to provide drinking water to a home without pipes. You may be the first on your block to explain how a ceramic water filter works.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of