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Take a cruise, save the world: will millennials buy social-justice tourism?

5 June 2015 16:58 (UTC+04:00)
Take a cruise, save the world: will millennials buy social-justice tourism?

By Bloomberg

For many people, acting conscientiously on vacation means using the hotel towel more than once. But there's no reason for correct-thinking tourists to leave their values at the bathroom door. Want to spend your holiday teaching English, saving turtles or planting trees? There's a socially responsible vacation package for you. Businesses have developed a new vocabulary for this market: ecotourism, voluntourism, even pro-poor tourism.

Carnival on Thursday used its preferred term—social-impact travel—at an event introducing what might be an unlikely venue for ethical vacationers: the cruise ship. The biggest player in an industry long criticized for generating pollution, avoiding taxes, and minimizing wages will soon launch a new (and deliberately uncapitalized) brand called fathom. It's part of an effort to lure younger vacationers who want to combine a week of all-you-can-eat dining with the opportunity to help others.

The first voyage will depart next April on a seven-day journey to the Dominican Republic. Passengers will spend three days in Puerto Plata, the island's northern coastal region, cultivating cacao plants and organic fertilizer, teaching English, or working with a local women’s cooperative to make artisanal chocolates. Others will help to build household water filters from clay.

The 710-passenger ship, MV Adonia, will sail between Miami and Amber Cove, a destination that the company is developing into an $85 million port on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. The ship has no casino or Broadway-style stage shows and will offer films, foods, and music from the Dominican Republic while en route. The two days spent entirely at sea will feature what Carnival describes as “impact and community programming.”

Uplifting tourism has been around for decades. Most efforts try to combine exploration of a destination or culture—especially those facing pervasive poverty—with purposeful attempts to turn tourists into an engine for development and conservation. This notion has gained greater traction within the travel industry with the rise of the millennials, a cohort widely believed by marketers to be attracted to meaningful experiences and deeper social purpose. Millennials love to travel in general, although cruises haven't caught on with the under-40 demographic. Carnival's idea is to give millennials a reason to try a mode of travel they might associate with their grandparents.

“Because of their age and the era in which they've grown up, [millennial travelers] tend to try to tailor things to their own desires,” says Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked, a chronicle of the enormous recent growth of international travel. That outlook gives younger tourists a general aversion to pre- packaged vacations and other mass-market travel experiences.

Carnival says it is the first to offer a socially- responsible cruise. It sees a potential market of up to 1 million North Americans who would consider this kind of getaway. The target travelers are looking for “an opportunity to use their head, heart, and hands while they travel,” says fathom’s president, Tara Russell, in an interview. “You can’t change the world in seven days,” she adds, but a “systematic, long-term- partner approach to the country” can bring success.

There's risk, of course, that quite a few passengers could end up preferring a day on the beach to a day in an English class. There's no obligation to actually volunteer on the volunteerism cruise. Russell describes the brand as “all inclusive” and insists that no one will be shammed or pressured into helping. Her team identified the potential problem of non- participation early in their planning and are training sales representatives to discuss the cruise in detail. Other Carnival brands might be a better fit, Russell says, “if they just want to go on a party ship.”

“We won't paint a wall just to make a traveler feel good,” Russell said on Thursday during the launch event at a theater in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, a neighborhood that is home to many Dominican immigrants.

Transforming the all-pampering cruise into a social-justice voyage might be novel, but the travel industry has already spent years selling experiences that appeal to an American vacationer's desire to be part of the solution. “Here you are, living in the United States, and you’ve never seen real poverty,” says Becker. “They go overseas and they can’t miss it. And they’re humans, and they feel a natural impulse to respond.”

“We won't paint a wall just to make a traveler feel good”

The expansion in worldwide travel means that tourists drive a vast economic engine when they arrive in underdeveloped regions. Travel and tourism accounted for nearly 10 percent of global gross domestic product in 2014 and supplied one in 11 global jobs, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. The global travel economy is expected to grow from $7.6 trillion last year to $11 trillion by 2025.

But it might be a mistake to assume that dropping in at schools or farms in developing nations effectively helps to meet real needs. In almost every situation, it’s not labor or clothing or orphanage staff that are lacking–it’s cash. “If you just want to take photos in an orphanage or to hold babies, well, that’s not as helpful as if you have built the west wing of that orphanage or bought the food for the kids to eat,” says Kelly Campbell, co-founder of The Village Experience, an Indianapolis-based company that coordinates philanthropic travel groups in Guatemala, India, and Kenya. “That’s what’s helpful.”

That might be one of the questions Carnival confronts: Is a shipload of well-meaning travelers making a significant contribution or just dropping into the Dominican Republic for poverty tourism? The Center for Responsible Tourism and other travel groups have been vigorously campaigning against vacationing gawkers, particularly those who arrive at orphanages, AIDS treatment centers, and other places “with vulnerable human populations,” says Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit research group in Washington. “It’s treating people as if they’re petting animals in a zoo, and that is not right.”

There are two advantages fathom may be able to offer its local partners: a consistent revenue stream from a portion of the cruise fares and a steady supply of workers several days per week. Carnival won’t disclose how much money from each passenger fare will go to support charity work; a company spokeswoman said the business model is structured “to make enough profit to sustain the business to continue for the long term, as opposed to a model to maximize profits.”

For travelers who want to be more philanthropic-minded—be it a corporate retreat that adds volunteerism to the agenda or yoga practitioners hoping to help out on a trip to India—the greatest challenge is how to ensure that donated labor is truly helpful. “If we are not genuinely impactful, we’re not going to keep doing it,” fathom's Russell says. “You can have my word: If this is not meaningful, it won’t be worth doing.”

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