I’m the first to admit, I’m not your typical cruiser. Beach-hopping is relaxing yes, but resorts rarely get you out of your comfort zone and the “all-inclusives” are designed to make you feel like you never left home. Typical cruises and resort life give you little insight into local living.
Fathom, I discovered, is not your typical Caribbean cruise. It’s an alternative cruise by Carnival, disrupting the “traditional” model of cruising with a new category of volunteer cruise vacations in the Caribbean. The journey is 3 days at sea/4 days on the ground, and a chance to volunteer in the Dominican Republic.
The concept behind Fathom is based on social impact travel, getting off the resort, engaging with communities, and making positive change in small yet meaningful (and lasting) ways.
What is Impact Travel?
Impact Travel is about having a direct and enduring social footprint on the communities we visit. Fathom does this through impact travel activities – community-building and needs-based projects near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic with a focus on creating an impact in three areas: Economic Development, Environmental and Social/Educational. There are about 8 projects you can choose from. I had the opportunity to get involved in four – which was the most I could fit in the time that I had.
Tree Planting and Reforestation
About 38% of the Dominican Republic is forested and while it might seem like a large percentage, trees have become an absolute necessity here where communities suffer from landslides. I was really excited to hike the rainforest and get my hands dirty but Mother Nature wasn’t on our side – only a few minutes into mixing soil, collecting seeds and planting, it began pouring buckets. Luckily, we did manage to plant about 380 seeds before the rain came down. To see what the reforestation project is like, watch this video by my friend Jema.
Clean Water Filtration Production
One of my favourite projects was the water filter project which allowed us to lend a hand in improving access to clean drinking water in the DR. With more than 80% of families lacking this basic human right, water filters have become an important tool to fight against ill-health, disease and poverty. The best part of the project? We had a chance to deliver the filters to people in the community and directly meet the families we were impacting.
Recycled Paper Entrepreneurship
The most energetic and inspiring group of women I’ve ever met was at RePapel. They sing and dance at this paper-making factory run by 13 women and single moms who found a way to repurpose paper while bringing in an extra income. They meticulously tear sheets of recycled paper all day, each one by hand, washing, flattening, and drying them to sell to tourist shops in Santo Domingo and printing companies which help them turn their product into postcards, business cards and stationery. Bring some cash with you to buy some of their beautiful jewellery and other hand-made crafts.
Creating a cement floor for a local family was the highlight of my week – I think I got more out of it than they did. It was a truly meaningful experience where I could use my own hands to create (and actually see) the direct social and economic impact I could have on someone else’s life. I still may never truly understand what it’s like for Eriberta and Chavez to live without a proper floor but I’ll never forget meeting this beautiful couple and knowing our group was able to help improve their quality of living. It was the most rewarding part of my volunteer trip.
Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
This is small factory owned and run by an inspiring group of local women who produce 100lbs of chocolate each day! The factory has no extra budget to sort nibs or wrap bars so Fathom volunteers chip in. Volunteers free up their hands so the women can do what they do best – make chocolate! Since Fathom travellers started coming here in April, the women have been able to increase supply, making 16,112 more chocolate bars which they can sell to tourists for $2 each. I didn’t have time to take part in this activity but you can watch my friends, Dave and Deb’s experience at Chocal.
About 41% of the population lives below the poverty line, most kids leave school at age 8, and families try to make ends meet with about $170 a month. Helping locals learn a few more words or phrases in English means they can have access to better jobs and higher income. The unique part of this is that there is a curriculum to follow and volunteers actually go in with a lesson plan – a continuation from previous Fathom teachers so students keep improving at their level or higher.
Will You Change the World?
Probably not. But you will definitely be part of a ripple effect. In just 4 days I helped one family repair their floor, give four families clean drinking water, and plant a bunch of new trees for a community. Now, every time a new ship full of Fathom travellers come through it means our efforts will be multiplied and we can have a continuous impact, even well after we’re gone. So, as individuals we might not change the world, but as a collective we definitely can.
Can Cruising Really Be Responsible?
I had moments throughout my journey where I questioned my purpose and whether I had the potential to be intrusive rather than helpful. Was I doing more harm than good? Could an all-inclusive cruise really be responsible or sustainable?
At first I was skeptical. There are so many volunteer projects out there designed with the tourist in mind and with very little impact on the communities they serve, but it looks like Fathom may be going in the right direction.
1. They have partnered with two local NGOs, Entrena and IDDI which use local guides and facilitators on the ground to run the different impact activities directly and independently of the cruise company.
2. Both NGOs also existed well before the idea of Fathom existed which means they already had established programs and local workers in place. This was reassuring for me as a volunteer because I didn’t want to worry about taking any jobs away from locals. Instead, I could see how Fathom travellers were actually an added resource, helping to further the work that both of these NGOs are already accomplishing in the DR.
3. I’m told some of the impact activities might change as the needs of the community change. This is really big because it shows the company is putting the community first. Once Entrena and IDDI meet their goals in particular communities they may shift their efforts into a different community or need but the concept will always be impactful and positive.
4. The impact activities are about working alongside local people to produce a positive outcome or make their quality of life better. It’s about working with them rather than doing the job for them and I think this is a key element in any volunteer project. It’s about giving a hand up not a hand out.
I avoid cruise travel because most cruises have unethical social and cultural practises. I would have never imagined that a cruise could actually deliver on a deep and meaningful (and responsible) travel experience but Fathom has nailed this pretty well. This cruise is the perfect option for couples, solo travellers, but especially families because it introduces young kids to less fortunate communities and the importance of giving back.
There are a couple of things some of us think could be improved however. It would have been helpful to receive better information before the trip, such as how gratuities work (FYI about $80 is added to your bill at the end of the week) or what to pack for each impact activity. The company is still brand new so I’m sure they’re tweaking things along the way. Until then, I’ve added some must-pack items below plus a few tips that came in handy for me.
Finally…. take a deep breath and jump in wholeheartedly! The DR is a beautiful place with beautiful people who will open up their arms and homes to you.
How to Get the Most Out of a Fathom Trip
- Sign up for the impact activities in the Journey Planner as soon as you get your trip confirmation. I didn’t realize there were limited spots in the activities. I signed up a week before departure and options had already filled up. The good news is that sometimes people cancel or switch their choices so if there is an activity you want to join, make a run for the Explorer’s Desk when you get onboard to get your name on the list.
- There is a premium for wifi on the ship but I didn’t mind it so much – it forced me to unplug for the week and focus on why I was really there. If you want to stay connected there is free Wifi at Amber Cove where the ship docks.
- Don’t drink the water in the DR (although you do get lots of bottled water on the ground).
While it might be tempting to hang out by the bar or pool all day, my best tip is to get involved as much as you can! Here are some of the things I did in between impact activities:
- Check out giant Jenga night
- Take salsa lessons
- Do the scavenger hunt
- Workout (the gym has an awesome oceanview)
- Go for a run on the track during the stunning sunrise
- Leave an anonymous note on someone’s door with a positive thought or compliment!
- Send a Fathom postcard to your future self
- Look for curiosity boxes. Small boxes are hidden in various places around the ship, each with an inspiring note or idea. Some boxes are hidden in plain sight, others require you to dig a bit deeper – but it’s all part of the fun!
- The library is full of good reads. I finally started reading I am Malala, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while but never got around to
What to Pack
- Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty
- Long pants
- Hiking or Closed-toe shoes
- Shirt that covers your shoulder
- Reusable water bottle
- Lots of sunscreen
- Lots of bug repellent
My favourite quote from Gil, our Impact Guide:
“The more good you do, the better you feel about yourself. And the more good you will continue to do”
My experience was part of Fathom.org an impact travel cruise to the Dominican Republic but as always all opinions are my own.