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Carnival's 'voluntourism'

In 2013, Carnival’s recently named CEO, Arnold Donald, and a non-profit executive named Tara Russell began discussing ideas for a cruise line aimed at socially conscious travelers.

They had gotten to know each other through a non-profit that Russell started in Boise, Idaho. Among her financial supporters was a private equity group led, in part, by Donald. She says they noticed a void in the cruise market for something that combines “love of travel with a desire to make a difference.”

In January 2014, Russell stepped away from her non-profit’s dayto- day operations to help Carnival develop its 10th cruise brand, called Fathom.

She says Fathom was “waist deep” in planning vacation getaways to the Dominican Republic last December when President Obama eased sanctions against Cuba.

In June, Fathom announced weeklong sailings, starting in April 2016, to the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. A month later, it added Cuba after receiving approval from the U.S. government to send a cruise ship there “for the purpose of providing cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens.”

Plans call for the 710-passenger Adonia to set sail for Cuba on May 1. The Adonia will be based at PortMiami and alternate each week between Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where passengers can teach English, make chocolate for a local co-op or build water filtration devices.

Russell, Fathom’s president, recently spoke to Florida Trend about “voluntourism” and Cuba as a cruise destination.

What did your market research uncover in terms of the size and potential of “social impact” travel?

“We found a small but growing market. There were about 1.6 million people globally already doing this form of travel — what we would consider impact travel work, or some sort of voluntourism.

We anticipated there were another 1 million people in the U.S. interested in this kind of travel experience.”

Fathom still needs the go-ahead from Cuban officials to transport passengers to Cuba. How are talks going?

“We’re confident that there won’t be any problems in terms of receiving approval, but as you can imagine things aren’t moving super quickly in Cuba.”

Which Cuban ports will Carnival use?

“We’ll be visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.”

What activities will be offered on the Cuba trips?

“We’ll be working with artist communities and sort of hearing the story of the Cuban people through beautiful pieces of art. We’ll be working with smallbusiness owners and food entrepreneurs. And we’ll be working very closely to ensure that we understand the needs of the Cuban people so that we’re able to find the right humanitarian service opportunities.”

Do you plan to add more ships and more destinations?

“I could envision a ship in Southeast Asia, northern Africa and the Middle East. But first and foremost, we have to prove out the model with what we’re building in the Caribbean.”