Do Fathom Impact Travel activities have lasting value in the Dominican Republic, or is this approach merely the latest trend in cruise voluntourism?
UPDATE: Fathom ceased operation as a cruise line in June 2017. The MV Adonia was returned to service in Carnival’s P&O line.
I was invited to be a guest of Fathom Impact Travel for the tenth sailing of the Adonia to the Dominican Republic. Fathom is the newest cruise line under the Carnival umbrella, and its focus is impact travel.
My primary cruise experience has been with Viking Cruises, a luxury line that caters to the mature traveler, and having never experienced impact travel while on a cruise, I was curious to learn more about it.
What is impact travel?
Impact travel, a term coined by Fathom, is travel with the intention of transforming lives through participation in immersive cultural activities that produce lasting positive social, educational, environmental, and economic change.
To me, impact travel sounded a lot like voluntourism, or travel for the purpose of doing charitable works at the destination. Although voluntourism has been highly controversial in recent years, I decided to fully embrace participation in the Fathom impact activities and find out for myself.
If I am completely honest, I must confess it has taken me several weeks to fully process my Fathom experience. But my intention now is to share with unbridled candor reflections on participation in my three selected impact activities and observations from conversations with other travelers from my sailing regarding the activities I did not experience.
Table of Contents
- 1 Fathom Impact Travel Activities
- 2 The Fathom Adonia Master Schedule
- 3 Community English Conversation and Learning
- 4 Reforestation and Nursery
- 5 Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
- 6 Conversations About Other Impact Activities
- 7 My Final Assessment
- 8 Map It!
- 9 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 10 Pin this Post!
- 11 Fathom Links
- 12 Post Roundup by Fellow Fathom Impact Travelers
Fathom Impact Travel Activities
In addition to their paid recreation shore excursions, Fathom offers eight impact activities. Passengers may participate in 1-3 impact activities while the ship is in port in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, at no additional cost. The eight impact activities are:
- Community English Conversation and Learning
- Student English Conversation and Learning
- Creative Arts, Music, and Sports
- Water Filter Production ($20 fee)
- Reforestation and Nursery
Economic Development Impact
- Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
- Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship
Special Opportunity Impact
- Concrete Floors in Community Homes
Most Fathom passengers choose to participate in two or three impact activities. It would difficult to do more due to transportation and schedule logistics. I chose to participate in Community English Conversation and Learning, Reforestation and Nursery, and Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative.
The Fathom Adonia Master Schedule
Photo Credit: Fathom Impact Travel
Community English Conversation and Learning
Photo Credit: Jesica Helgren
My first impact activity was on Tuesday afternoon, the day we docked at Amber Cove in Puerto Plata. We boarded the coach that would carry us to the community of San Antonio, and while on the drive a representative from Entrena, Fathom’s non-profit educational partner, distributed curriculum binders and gave us an overview of the focus lesson of the day.
Photo Credit (R): Amanda Shute Taylor
The community meeting place in San Antonio was a local church. We were met by additional Entrena personnel and community leaders who welcomed us and organized our instructional groups. Some passengers remained at the church for one-on-one instruction, while small groups were sent to various homes in the community.
Photo Credit (R): Amanda Shute Taylor
My group of five landed on the front porch of a home a few blocks away, situated directly across from the male community hangout. We met our host family, as well as other female members from the neighborhood, and arranged ourselves on the porch to begin our lessons.
It soon became clear after we paired off that we had too many chiefs and not enough Indians. One of the passengers who spoke a bit of Spanish immediately took the initiative and began loudly reviewing the previous lesson’s content.
As many of our readers know, I lived in Latin America during my teen years, and Spanish is my second language. I am also a recently retired 35-year English teacher. This impact activity should have been a perfect fit for me. Unfortunately, due to the logistics it did not happen that way.
In spite of the less-than-perfect circumstances, we soldiered on in attempts make our session as beneficial as possible. The adults and children were highly-engaged with our attempts at teaching English, and their smiles, humor, and warmth were the best part of the experience.
What is the lasting impact of Community English Conversation and Learning?
In a perfect world, I would have had a student or class assigned to me alone in a separate location. As a veteran educator, I know how to teach, and my efforts during this afternoon excursion would have been far more effective, in my opinion.
As it stood, I was frustrated with the disorganization. It was clear that the children fresh out of school for the summer had a headstart on their parents. They were more able to connect the newly-introduced English vocabulary with their schema. The adults on the other hand, having no foundation, appeared to parrot isolated English words without truly grasping their meanings.
At the end of the day, I left feeling that our English instruction had profited little. Passengers who were situated at other locations spoke positively about their lessons, so obviously everyone’s experience was not like mine. And I am glad.
In retrospect, my feelings regarding the academic worth of our efforts that day has not changed. However, you cannot throw people from two different worlds together for the afternoon without both parties learning more about each other. If we look at the experience as a cultural exchange, where Dominicans and Americans get better acquainted with each other and the commonalities of humankind, I would say the activity was a huge success.
Reforestation and Nursery
Thursday morning our reforestation group loaded up for the drive to the idyllic community of Sosúa. We were ready to get our hands dirty with our task of planting mangroves.
This time we would be working with IDDI, another non-profit Fathom partner, as well as the DR’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. The on-ground representatives split us into groups with the tasks of planting, transporting stakes, and carrying plants. As the morning progressed, our groups would rotate between the tasks.
Hiking to the planting area on the newly-cleared terrain was an interesting experience due to the treacherous path and negotiating between previous plantings on the uneven ground. But the obstacles contributed to the overall adventure of plunging into the Dominican countryside.
Everyone was highly-motivated to get plants into the ground, and we did so with rapid precision, an action which perhaps led to our first issue. We ran out of plants! As a member of the planting group, I soon grew tired of standing around doing nothing, so I decided to trek back to help with transporting plants. The baby mangroves had been delivered by rowboat to a holding location approximately midpoint along the path that paralleled the canal.
The local organizers had taken great care to deliver bottled water to all of the workers. Suddenly, it occurred to me that it would be much more expeditious to deliver trays of plants by boat to the planters along the canal. That way we could keep moving forward and increase our planting exponentially.
I have been known to be outspoken on occasion, so I made the suggestion, but the authorities apparently did not see it my way. I never got a clear answer why the plants could not be delivered to us by boat.
What is the lasting impact of Reforestation and Nursery?
By the time we headed back to headquarters for a picnic lunch, there was no doubt that our group had put a lot of plants in the ground. I forget the exact numbers, but I do recall the announcement that we had set a daily record.
Even though I felt we could have accomplished more with better organization, there is no question that we made a lasting environmental impact on the Dominican Republic from our efforts planting mangroves that day.
Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
I cannot deny that the thoughts of sampling chocolate did not influence the selection process of my third impact activity. I did not regret the choice.
On the morning of our final day in the Dominican Republic we boarded a bus for the last time and drove up in to the mountains of the Cordillera Septentrional to the town of Altamira. We would be visiting Chocal, a women’s cooperative, to assist with the chocolate production cycle. Because our group was scheduled on departure day, we would not be visiting the cacao nursery.
Upon arrival, we were split up into several smaller groups to begin rotation between the various stages of chocolate production which included sorting and culling cacao nibs, filling molds, and wrapping individual chocolates by hand.
As I moved between the various stations, I came to the conclusion that it took the women of Chocal more time to teach us the various processes than it would have taken them to complete the tasks themselves. These women had been in business for six years, and they had mastered the chocolate-making craft. Our participation was more of a learning process for us than a boost to their production.
What is the lasting impact of Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative?
Our group contributions to the chocolate-making process were minimal, if any. But like the Community English Conversation and Learning, it was clearly a beneficial cultural exchange.
Perhaps our greatest impact was that our group exited through the cooperative store and loaded up on Dominican chocolate. This was undoubtedly an economic boost for the Chocal women’s cooperative.
Conversations About Other Impact Activities
My dear friend Amelia Old from Pretty in the Queen City participated in the Creative Arts, Music, and Sports activity along with her son Josh, and totally loved it. CAMS is the summer replacement for the Student English Conversation and Learning activity when schools are not in session.
Passengers who participated in the Concrete Floors in Community Homes activity returned to ship completely overwhelmed by their efforts. Their accounts of families moved to tears as they watched concrete cover the dirt floors of their homes could not be topped. It only took me a moment to envision the scenes. So was there a lasting impact? You bet!
The Water Filter Production participants returned with similar stories. This activity is the only one that requires a $20 participation fee to help offset the cost of the water filters. Fathom, their impact partners, and the Dominican families who receive filters also contribute financially. Would I contribute $20 to give a family clean drinking water? In a heartbeat!
I happened to have dinner with two sisters who joined the Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship activity. Both of them were experienced bookmakers, and one sister was an accomplished businesswoman. She expressed that this new women’s cooperative could benefit from an evaluation of their basic methods and expert assistance with their business plan. She also said she would be willing to help out by teaching the women to design a unique book to sell in stores and even in the Adonia gift shop, but she was not sure how well her recommendations would be received. She had noticed that similar books sold onboard were imported from Asia.
My Final Assessment
To prepare passengers for their impact activities and to create community, Fathom has created Cohort Groups. Led by Impact Guides, these groups meet onboard at various times throughout the cruise. I attended all of the meetings and can honestly say that they were educational, informative, and helped build bonds between members.
Photo Credit: Fathom Impact Travel
At the final cohort meeting our Impact Guide shared data of the Cumulative Impact After the 10th Fathom Sailing to the Dominican Republic. Even though I was still processing the whole concept of a for-profit travel brand helping its customers contribute to a country through non-profit channels, there was no denying the impressive numbers that were shared.
The final meeting also included a self-evaluation activity that posed questions for reflection. I did not answer all of the questions in writing, but I did read them and consider my answers. It is evident from my self-assessment that participation in the Fathom impact activities opened my eyes to “what is possible.”
There are so many applicable quotes firing in my brain right now that it would take me an additional day to wind up this post if I included them all. So the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” and Margaret Mead’s “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” will have to suffice.
It has taken me three months to process my Fathom experience, and even though no one ever asked me, or other passengers for that matter, to evaluate the logistics and efficiency of the impact activities, I have to respond with a resounding, “YES!” in answer to the title of this article.
Fathom Impact Travel activities DO have lasting value.
And the experience has transformed me . . . .
The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.
———John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Poet, Writer, Art Critic
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever participated in impact travel? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!
Pin this Post!
Post Roundup by Fellow Fathom Impact Travelers
Making an Impact in the World with Fathom Travel (I’m in this one.)
My Dominican Republic Fathom Cruise (critical review)
8 Great Fathom Cruise Secrets (helpful tips)