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.

The 704-passenger Adonia (considered a small ship) docked in Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic
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?

The Adonia

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.

One of my favorite signs – ever.

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

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