I think it’s fair to say that large ship cruises are currently one of the undisputed champions of irresponsible tourism. This made it even more surprising when Carnival Corporation announced last week that they are stepping down from the podiums top spot and entering the world of responsible tourism. I had to double check it wasn’t April 1st before I believed it. At first, I was pleased, perhaps they have finally given in to the long list of campaigns and criticisms to become more responsible! However, when a company that was voted 3rd in the top ten corporate criminals list just last year suddenly decides to become the next powerhouse for ‘sustained and long-lasting positive impact’, alarm bells started ringing and concerns start to bubble up.
However, I have previously suggested that perhaps it’s time to work with the irresponsible companies to improve their approaches to tourism rather than fighting them. Nobody can deny that if cruises were responsible they would be a huge force for good. Unfortunately, cruises will always be popular and will not disappear. Therefore, it should be music to my ears when I hear Carnival suggest they ‘harness the assets and resources of the world’s largest travel and leisure company and combine them with the talents and hearts of those working in social enterprises around the world’. In this blog, I have decided to delve into their press release with an open mind and give them a chance to see how they are stepping into responsible tourism.
In a nutshell, Carnival has created their own travel category called ‘Social Impact Travel’. They plan to launch the mother ship of volunteers, shipping hundreds of tourists to do a short stint of community volunteering to ‘offer consumers authentic, meaningful impact travel experiences to work alongside locals as they tackle community needs’. On April 2016, the Fathom project will set sail from PortMiami to the Dominican Republic on the MV Adonia. The cruise will last for one week and will transport a maximum of 710 passengers, each can choose from a range of ‘social impact activities’ depending on their interests, passions and skills.
Oh dear, already the wording is sounding a little odd, volunteering isn’t an ‘activity’, it’s not designed to serve the volunteer but to support the Dominicans. It is not up to the volunteer to choose, it is down to the community to decide where they need the most support. However, Carnival appears to have this covered. By partnering with proven and trusted local organisations (Entrena and the Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo), NGO’s and Dominican government officials will ensure collaborative and beneficial contributions, few!….
One second, is it possible that some of the most menial and uninteresting jobs could also be the most important? They still have to make the package appear attractive otherwise nobody will enrol. However, this could be applied to all volunteering opportunities in tourism. It’s not hard to see that the voluntourism sector does have its own problems, many of which have been created by the conversion of volunteering into a ‘for profit’ industry. To be marketable, placements need to become an attractive proposition for the Tourist.
Because tourists will be spending their time on the project, the volunteer gets to select the project. The receiving party does not have this luxury, they have to place their trust in the company that organises the volunteer placement and thus an unequal relationship forms. Many of these companies are businesses that need to make money and will only pick marketable volunteer placements. According to Carnival ‘based on extensive market research, fathom has identified a sizable and growing market of potential social impact travel consumers’. Furthermore, they believe that 40 percent of Fathom customers may have never actually chosen a cruise! Suddenly, I can feel my open-mindedness slipping a little, does this sound like the language of a truly philanthropic activity?
As a counterargument, I have suggested that you need to start with money to attract corporations to ethical forms of tourism and so it could be positive news that Carnival can see the profitability in responsible tourism. Fathom is designed to help people take their first step into ‘unleashing their personal passions and talents to improve the world’ and to cater for ‘a growing market of consumers who want to have a positive impact on people’s lives’. Carnival has found that people are eager to make meaningful contributions but have struggled to find a trusted route to give back. In this sense, Fathom is the catalyst of further positive social and ‘sustained impact’ in the form of a constant supply of volunteers.
But is it really ethical? Is a week enough? Will they really be able to make much of an impact? Remember, it will take a day or two before they actually step foot on the Dominican Republic so they only have a maximum of 3 days. It actually gets worse, projects may only last a few hours, not much time to make that ‘sustained impact and lasting development’. Furthermore, tourists can choose to take part in ‘social impact’ projects or go off on a jolly; relax on beaches and enjoy activities created by Carnival Corporation. I think we are starting to get down to the nitty-gritty of the Fathom cruise and it is starting to sound like another greenwash. Even if holiday goers leave with good intentions, how many people do you think will decide to volunteer if faced with the choice of fun activities or digging holes? Furthermore, if they do decide to volunteer how many do you think will volunteer for the maximum duration of just 3 days?
Unless it is managed properly, the tourists who do decide to volunteer could become a real risk. Volunteering has been transformed into another ride for the tourists but a perpetual, revolving, groundhog day type experiences for the Dominicans. Teachings could become samey as volunteers go over already read material, Labourers are unable to communicate or learn from previous volunteers finding progression difficult when building the water filters. It could become draining on the local women’s cooperative as they spend time training volunteer after volunteer to cultivate their cacao plants. Although these are established projects, due to the shire size of this operation I think we all should be concerned. Could Fathoms 700 strong presence fall, victim of its own success, pushing out those who are willing to spend long periods of time on these projects?
The only real tangible positive impact that I can gauge from Fathom is the portion of the money donated to the projects from every ticket purchased (although this portion is not specified). I cannot see how a maximum of 3 days can make a positive impact, in fact, I think it will slow these things down. To be honest, I doubt that much of an impact will be made at all whether it is positive or negative, the alternative leisure activities will always be more appealing.
Unfortunately, I do not feel this is the huge force of good that we have been promised. Instead, it is just another cruise touched up with a bit of volunteering experience but this time there are even bigger implications if the projects go wrong. I haven’t even touched upon the serious issues surrounding CRB checks and the training that is required to volunteer effectively. I think Carnival Corporation may have lost touch with the fact that these are real people’s lives, this is not just another fun ride as they make it appear. These people are not there to make cruise tourists feel good about themselves, they are real people who need real help. If you are really serious about making a difference through voluntourism then speak to an organisation that is a specialist and has the needs of the people at their heart, people and places are a very good place to start.
Yes, Fathom does have its problems but I do not think it is all negative. It is dangerous to use real people’s lives as an experiment for the first voluncruise, but some things could be going in the right direction. But unfortunately Carnival have either not been advised properly, listened properly or perhaps volunteering and cruising are an impossible relationship. But who would have thought we would ever see a cruise company creating what they think is a responsible holiday? It may be a sign of things to come.