The Problem With Voluntourism

Last month I went on a cruise with Fathom, the newest brand from Carnival Corporation that specializes in social impact travel.

Positive social impact and giant cruise companies don’t seem to go hand in hand, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. Here’s how Fathom describes their mission and the trips:

“Pioneered by Fathom, impact travel is a whole new category of travel: it’s travel with purpose. Travel that transforms lives. Sometimes including your own. Impact travel with Fathom provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact.
Every Fathom™ journey is based on our sincere belief that the person-to-person connection is among the strongest catalysts for transformation. What sets Fathom apart is the long-term, systematic partnership approach with its partner countries paired with the unique business model that allows for sustained impact and lasting development. Fathom’s scale and global vision reach beyond what the world has ever seen.
The adventure begins in Spring 2016 with separate round-trip voyages from Miami to two of the Caribbean’s most desired destinations: the Dominican Republic and Cuba. In the Dominican Republic, you’ll have the opportunity to work side by side with local residents in existing programs that focus on improving the lives of children, families and communities. In Cuba, you’ll participate in an ongoing cultural exchange program that gives you the opportunity to interact with the Cuban people, one on one.
And you’ll come home seven days later knowing that, for the people whose lives you’ve just touched, the world has become a little brighter because of you.”

“Sometimes including your own” and “the Caribbean’s most desired destinations” are the key phrases of that message. These trips are geared toward making you feel good about yourself while still having a fun travel experience, and the impact part of ‘social impact’ is a stretch.

There are a range of impact activities to choose from, and no prior experience needed for any of them. I chose Reforestation and Student English Conversation and Learning. During a 4.5 hour reforestation activity, we only planted for about an hour. First there was a warmup exercise, a hike, and a training. By the time we were ready to plant seeds it was obvious there were too many people and not enough room around the pile of soil. This resulted in half of the group standing around taking photos. In the end we planted 1700 seeds, which seems like a lot, but it could have been so many more if the time was used more effectively. I also have to wonder if the people training us (local nursery employees and volunteers) could have taken those hours of explaining and hiking and put them to better use.

Student English Conversation and Learning was a bit better. Again though, it was a 4.5 hour activity and we were only with each group of students for 40 minutes. We were given a training in how to teach English (not something you can learn in one short class) while still on the ship, and there were some discrepancies between what we were told then and what we were told once at the school. I don’t think you can teach anything to young students in such short, sporadic bursts, but I do think hearing native English speakers is always helpful, so in that sense this was a more beneficial activity. The kids seemed happy we were there and had fun talking with us, but would have benefited more from better organization and more time.

I didn’t do the Recycled Paper and Crafts activity, where I heard one group saved the women they were working with three days of work. That could be good, but there could also be things those women could benefit from more than extra hands (especially extra hands that they have to train every time a new cruise group comes in).

To Fathom’s credit, the staff was incredible and very enthusiastic about every activity. I was also on the first ever Fathom trip, so it could get better with time. If people picked one impact activity to stick with for the whole trip, for example, they would only have to do one training and could learn a specific skill and actually help throughout the three days. Doing multiple projects is too scattered, and the “I want to try a bit of everything” mentality made it obvious that the activities were for the traveler’s benefit above anything else.

The larger problem is voluntourism as a concept. Do you really want to help a group of people or a place, or do you just want to feel good about yourself? For most on the trip I’m betting it was the latter. The people who boasted the most about how much they were helping were the same ones complaining about the lack of room service. A woman told me she now knew (after one day on the island) how it felt to live in “the real Dominican Republic.” An hour later she told me when she goes on cruises to Jamaica she never leaves the ship. “Why would I? They have everything and I can see the scenery from my balcony.” This woman, and many others, would never go volunteer abroad if it was actually difficult, or required extensive training and expertise, or you couldn’t return to your cabin every night for endless food, drink, and comfort.

If you want to go on a luxury cruise and do a (tiny) bit of good, that’s fine. Just frame it as a vacation. Don’t act like you’re going to go on some strenuous trip or you’re having such a large impact. Say you’re going on a vacation and going to learn something new about a place through a short volunteer activity. And please accept and admit that you’re doing it mostly for yourself. If you really wanted to help, there are many, many more beneficial ways. Here’s a great article about some of those ways, and some of the reasons you should be wary of voluntourism. It should be required reading before you take a Fathom trip or anything else that promises social impact.

In the end, did I have fun? Of course I did. But that wasn’t really the point.

(The better part of the trip was getting out of Amber Cove into Puerto Plata, taking with a local taxi driver, hanging out with some guys on an island, buying street food from a Michael Jordan fan, and drinking beer in the doorway of a shop while the owner played dominoes and we chatted with his daughter. Because each impact activity only lasted half a day, there was plenty of time to explore Puerto Plata and the surrounding area. For some ideas of what to do if you visit the Dominican Republic on a volunteer vacation, read this).