As I scraped up the umpteenth ‘present’ deposited by a four-legged friend in the animal shelter where I was helping out, I did wonder if I’d made the right decision.
My intentions had certainly been honourable when I opted for one of the voluntourism excursions offered by upscale line Crystal Cruises, but I hadn’t counted on having to clear up the dire consequences of one dog’s upset stomach! However, it seemed only fair to give something back to the ports we were visiting in view of the sumptuous luxury we were enjoying on-board our ship.
‘Cruising with a conscience’, as it is dubbed, has mushroomed in recent years, with more lines offering ways to help customers make a worthy contribution to the places they visit.
Lending a hand
Crystal has an established ‘You Care, We Care’ programme of activities that range from helping out at food centres and orphanages to taking part in conservation efforts.
Holland America Line offers a ‘Cruise With Purpose’ initiative offering similar activities, while companies including Hurtigurten have organised ad-hoc activities such as beach clean-ups, and Celebrity Cruises instigates tree-planting in the Galapagos Islands.
Many lines companies offering Asia river cruises encourage passengers to come armed with notebooks and pens to hand out to local children on school visits during sailings.
The giant Carnival Corporation, which owns P&O Cruises, Cunard and Princess Cruises, among others, took voluntourism a step further in April 2016 when it launched ‘social impact’ cruises to the Dominican Republic and Cuba under the brand Fathom, using P&O’s ship Adonia.
On these one-week voyages from Miami, the focus was geared to the communities passengers visited, with on-board workshops and activities on sea days and onshore tasks that included teaching English in schools and producing and installing water filters for local families.
It relied on attracting travellers wanting to spend, and pay, for a week devoted to such tasks, but it was seemingly a step too far and falling demand forced Carnival to scrap the cruises the following spring and return Adonia to the UK. Instead, the Fathom concept lives on as a shore option in the Dominican Republic for the Carnival cruise brands that call there.
Help or hindrance?
But it does bring into focus the limits of voluntourism in cruising and question-marks over how effective some of the activities are. After all, is it a question of giving meaningful help to communities or is it more about making participants feel good about themselves?
I think it depends on what you decide to do. Having cruised along Asia’s rivers and given out stationery and sweets in schools along the route, I can vouch for the truly heart-warming encounters for everyone involved. And, hopefully, simple gifts of pens and notepads bring immediate practical help for the wide-eyed children who always seem so thrilled to receive them.
As for the animal refuge experience with my family, after initially feeling like a spare part and then a human pooper-scooper, matters improved as we helped to exercise some energetic spaniels – something the hard-pressed staff didn’t really have time to do.
So we did feel we were at least making a difference, even if only in a small way. But when you are only spending a few hours at such places, it is difficult to do more.
As the manager conceded, the main value of the exercise from his perspective was being able to showcase the centre’s work and potentially build relationships with visitors who would often make donations on the day and afterwards too.
So, in some cases, at least the benefits can be prove to be as long-lasting as the memories.
Would you like to find out more about voluntourism opportunities on-board your next luxury cruise? Call our experienced Cruise Concierge team on 0808 202 6105 for more information.