When a company dons a cape and says it wants to save the world, a common response is an eye roll—especially if that company is Carnival Corp., a $16-billion-per-year cruising behemoth in an industry that’s under frequent fire for its negative environmental and social impact.
Yet, making a positive difference is what Carnival says it intends to do with Fathom, a new cruise line that puts immersive social-impact travel, in the form of “voluntourism,” at the heart of its brand. Fathom, which is the brainchild of Tara Russell, the recently appointed president of this new brand and the global-impact lead for Carnival, will launch in April 2016. Its dedicated 710-person ship, the Adonia, will send passengers on multiday volunteer missions for local charities via trips to the Dominican Republic and—in a first for any American cruise line—Cuba, starting in May.
Though some cruise lines have offered volunteer work as part of their shore excursions, Fathom is alone in making it a centerpiece. The initiative could have huge influence, resulting in as much as 200,000 volunteer hours from 18,000 passengers in the Dominican Republic over the course of a single year, according to Russell. And Carnival hopes Fathom will do some good for its bottom line too. The company has worked to rebuild its image since the infamous “Poop Cruise” of 2013 (when an engine fire left one of its ships stranded at sea for days). Last year, it welcomed 10.6 million passengers, up from 10.1 million in 2013. But attracting younger customers remains a struggle. The average cruisegoer today is nearly 50 years old, and, according to a 2014 Harris Poll, 58% of people who had never been on a cruise were actually less likely to take one than they were the year before. Fathom could be the ticket to creating a new generation of loyal cruisers—and a new paradigm for the entire industry.
“Unless you can build a market-driven solution, it’s just not financially sustainable,” says Russell, who previously led Create Common Good, a Boise, Idaho–based job-training and placement not-for-profit, which she founded in 2008. In 2013, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald invited her to discuss new social-enterprise opportunities for his company, and officially hired her last June. “At that time, we had about 78 million passenger-cruise days per year, [and I thought] it would be awesome if there was a way to tap into that human capital to do direct good,” Donald says. Russell’s team surveyed thousands of North Americans and found that while 40% of them had never been on a cruise, half had donated to charity or volunteered locally. And, most crucially, when Russell asked if they’d board a cruise to volunteer abroad, the average age of those who answered “yes” was 34. “[Fathom] will probably over-index with millenials, who over-index on desire for social impact,” Donald says.
The Fathom model is quite a departure from the traditional cruise experience. Before they even set sail to the Dominican Republic, passengers will receive emails introducing them to the area in which they elect to serve. The first two days at sea will include Spanish lessons and cultural films about the country. Upon arrival, travelers will work with not-for-profit partners on projects like planting trees and making ceramic water filters. After the trip, Fathom will keep passengers updated on the projects and connect them with volunteer opportunities near their hometowns.
Some skeptics say Fathom smacks more of opportunism than altruism. For one, the experience comes at a premium: Trips to the Dominican Republic start at $1,540, while a ticket to Cuba costs $2,990. (A regular seven-day trip with a stop in the Dominican Republic on the Carnival Glory starts at $509 per person.) Russell says the ship’s operating expenses are split among fewer passengers (the Glory holds four times as many people as the Adonia) and that a portion of each ticket goes directly to the line’s local NGO partners. Still, the Adonia, marketed as a vehicle for social good, may very well financially outperform its previous life sailing out of the U.K.
Fathom could also be viewed as a strategic play for the Cuban tourism market. While the U.S. government still prohibits leisure travel to Cuba, thawing diplomatic relations have made it easier for people to go under the guise of humanitarian projects. “There is some first-mover advantage for the company if they get permission from Cuba for the next step,” says Jaime Katz, a Morningstar analyst who covers Carnival.
If Fathom’s cape is indeed more cash-money green than Superman-red, the question is: Does it matter? Showing a profit will improve Fathom’s chances of scaling its efforts (Russell envisions adding three to five ships over the next 10 to 15 years). Which means even more benefits for Fathom’s NGO partners, like David Luther, executive director of Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral. “This long-term systemic approach is radically different,” he says. “The possibilities are enormous.”