Cruising to the Dominican Republic with Fathom was a good fit for us. Actually, it was pretty much the ideal first cruise experience. I think it is safe to say though that the Fathom experience may not be a good fit for all travelers.
From what I understand and from what we experienced on board the Adonia, it’s unlike your standard cruise ship where there are multiple restaurant choices, casinos, live stage shows and whatever else is offered on those ginormous floating cities. The Fathom experience is about thoughtful reflection and volunteerism. And, ping-pong.
Volunteerism – vs – Voluntourism
When I think of volunteerism I think of the Peace Corps. While in the Dominican Republic we volunteered our time at Chocal and it turned out that a young man – who helped to facilitate our visit – was actually a Peace Corps volunteer and had been at Chocal for two years. And, as it turned out since his two years of service was ending, he would soon be joining the Fathom impact activity staff. He explained to me that Chocal no longer qualified for Peace Corps volunteers because the women’s cooperative is able to operate on its own.
If someone asked me to define voluntourism, I would say it’s about traveling for a length of time, or taking a vacation, and spending a portion of time volunteering in some capacity. Fathom, asserts the company is not about voluntourism, but rather long-term holistic impact. And yet, we took a vacation and spent a portion of our time volunteering. The difference, I suppose, is that the Adonia will dock at Amber Cove every other week bringing up to 704 passengers. That’s a lot of volunteers. Maybe too many?
A traveler on the Adonia can participate as much as he/she would like or not at all. It is certainly possible to book a cruise to the Dominican Republic without participating in the impact activities. Seemingly though, that would somewhat defeat the purpose. While at sea there are a plethora of activities in which one can participate and everyone on ship is assigned to a co-hort group.
Once docked, if one was not onshore engaged in an impact activity, there were onboard sessions available in which one might participate such as story circle, curiosity advantage, wheel of life and design your life to name a few. I must admit, coming from a career in which I spent way too many years having to participate in small group learning sessions holding hands and singing, Kum Ba Yah, this was just not my cup of tea. However, one could also participate in sunrise yoga, a work out in the gym or pop in to the spa for a bit of pampering. Or just hang out on Deck 9 next to the pool, the bar and the never-ending supply of french fries. Abi particularly enjoyed the swinging hammock chairs as we relaxed and watched the ocean pass by.
Overall Volunteer Impact
During our week of travel with Fathom and the people of the Dominican Republic, our overall volunteer impact resulted in:
- 2,408 trees were planted. With time this will lead to more nutrient-rich soil, reduction in soil loss, improved localized air and water quality, an increase in localized biodiversity, and higher agricultural yields.
- 208 pounds of nibs cleaned. 6,320 chocolate bars wrapped. Travelers direct impact helps this company to grow sales and thrive, and provide critical income opportunities in the region as well as greater overall well-being of employees.
- 584 sheets of paper produced. Travelers hands-on support helps all aspects of this company grow, increase production and sales. As a result, the employees report greater overall well-being.
- Concrete floors were installed in 2 homes. Providing safer homes and improving quality of life for 20 people (total people living in these homes).
- 50 water filters produced. This will provide Clean Water Access to 50 homes, whose inhabitants will experience a significant reduction in waterborne illness instances. Indirect benefits will include better work and school attendance.
- 636 persons amongst students and community members benefited from effective foreign language interaction with native english speakers.
*results provided by Fathom Travel.
Impressive numbers, no doubt about it. Yet, there is a lingering little nagging prickle at the back of my neck. How much good did we really do and how long will it last? Is it truly sustainable with a holistic impact, or is it actually, just voluntourism? There were certain tasks we did that definitely made a difference such as Abi transplanting seedlings. And, the two of us sitting and literally tearing pieces of paper and separating the white paper from the printed paper. Tasks such as those, we believe, made a difference.
Both Sides of the Coin
How much time did we take from their day for them to give us instruction? Did we make an impact or did we just interrupt the daily routine of the places we visited? How much money and time did it cost them to feed us a yummy lunch of rice and beans, balls of beef meat, eggplant and plantains? This I do not know. I find myself seeing both sides of the coin because with all my nagging prickles, the programs definitely create jobs.
I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone to take on this journey and that’s a good thing. It’s also a good thing to ask the hard questions. Did we do more harm than good? And, wouldn’t it be interesting to return in 5 years to see for ourselves the impact of our 3 days working alongside the joyful people of the Dominican Republic?
To read more: Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good
Great article. I have struggled with this question too while travelling and always try to look for responsible volunteer options but it can be hard to tell whether you’re doing more harm than good. Generally, I try to look for organisations that work with local authorities and projects without taking jobs away from local people. One of the best volunteer orgs I’ve found is All Hands, who we volunteered with in the Philippines. They are a genuine not-for-profit; they work with local people and take on unskilled volunteers; you don’t pay a fee and live in very basic accommodation. We also found the Dog Rescue Project at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was great, the fee we paid covered our accommodation and we were helping out alongside Thai workers. It sounds like your volunteer experience was definitely one of the better ones.
Amy recently posted…On Leaving Spain and Searching for Adventure
Thanks Amy. I think it makes a significant difference if the organization is a non-profit and I think if we were to volunteer again in the future, it would only be for a non-profit.
I can see your concerns about how much the DR really got from your visit as I gather you spent the week on board the ship, so how many locals got your $ or was it just Fathom doing a wonderfully successful marketing campaign that really were the ones who reaped the benefits? :-/
I do feel going on a holiday where you give something back to the community is rewarding – there’s a science in how generosity makes you feel happier, so these holidays would indeed make the participants feel fantastic – and come back just the way you should from a holiday – happy, and possibly healthier from the activity!
But I like the fact you haven’t taken this at face value and questioned the authenticity of the operation 🙂
Linda Fairbairn recently posted…Take the Time Out – And See Where it Takes You
Absolutely, Linda. We did come back feeling as if we made a small difference, but still questioning the long-term impact. And, you’re correct. We did stay on the ship while in the DR, so we spent very little $$ locally.
I think there is value in both and if gives people a sense of being part of something positive I can’t see any real harm in it. I often volunteer with local health related events, such as recently helping out our local Coeliac UK group. But I don’t know if I would ever pay to volunteer, I guess it would depend on the project and if it was something I was very interested on.
Gilda Baxter recently posted…Sensational Seychelles
Agreed, Gilda, there are many worthwhile and responsible volunteer opportunities.
The question of the cost to get to the DR is another aspect. How much fuel was used? Not only on the boat, but to get to the boat. How much trash was created? I am very proud of you that you took a chance on this cruise and found ways to really enjoy the experience, but I think there is plenty of volunteering to be done close to home too, and it might be a better use of dollars, resources and human energy.
But if you want to cruise again, let us know. We are always up for an adventure. There is nothing wrong with having adventures.
All valid questions/points. There are definitely pros/cons of the traveling and volunteering experience, lots of things to consider for those looking to make a difference. As you say, start at home.
I remember the old days when volunteering meant going somewhere remote where you worked and got fed and given free lodging. My mom worked for an NGO in South-Central Africa so I’m familiar with it. Many of the volunteers were students who wanted to see the world, gain experience or just wanted to see and help people in less fortunate countries. I think that’s a great initiative. It was hard work and totally no-frills.
Today I find that a lot of “volunteering” is just another form of tourism. Does it help people on the ground? Maybe, depending on the project. The volunteers themselves get the satisfaction of doing something different, something that THEY get satisfaction with because they think they’re helping others. Are they really? I don’t know, I think again it depends on the project.
I guess for me, in the end, the difference is whether you are paying for this experience or not. If you’re not paying its presumably because there is real demand for your services and work. If you are, well, maybe it’s because its more about you (the tourist/volunteer) than about the work you do.
I kind of felt this way many years ago when l was at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and inquired about volunteering with elephants for a week. The cost of the time was about $600 for a week. They could ask that because everyone wants to work with elephants and there was a long waiting list. You can stay in a resort with a swimming pool for $600/wk in Thailand. So in the end, I don’t call that “volunteerism”, I call it exactly what you just named it “voluntourism”.
Frank recently posted…Forget everything youâve read. Rome is Incredible
I think you’ve nailed it, Frank, and I had the same thoughts. If you’re paying for the experience, is it truly volunteerism?