AMBER COVE, Dominican Republic —When Carnival Corp.’s new
Fathom brand docks for the first time here next April, guests will emerge onto
the pier of the newest port in the Caribbean. Everything about it will say
vacation, from the duty-free store at the foot of the pier, to the shopping
village full of souvenirs, to the thatched-roof cabanas sitting
Polynesian-style on platforms over the water.
But Fathom travelers will be on a decidedly nontraditional
vacation. Instead of choosing which beach to visit, they’ll be surveying
options for how they can help the residents on the north coast of this country,
where the per-capita income is about $11,680 a year. Many homes in the countryside
lack electricity or running water. Wood fires are common for cooking.
Fathom is not a conventional travel product, especially in
the fun-and-sun cruise sector. But the brand’s managers hope to make the case
that combining travel and social responsibility can be its own kind of fun.
“It’s a meshing of what in many households would be two
different spheres of their lives,” said David Drier, Fathom’s vice president of
sales and former CEO at Clipper Cruise Line.
Drier said a simple way of thinking about Fathom is that
people budget different time and money for travel and charity each year. “Now,
we’re melding those two buckets together.”
Drier and his sales team have a bit more than six months to
fill Fathom’s 710-passenger ship, which will alternate between weekly visits to
this port and a second itinerary in Cuba.
In the Hot Seat
Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst spoke with Tara Russell, the voluntourism brand's president on its Cuba and Dominican Republic itineraries. Read More
So far, Drier has focused on explaining Fathom to major
consortia such as Signature Travel Network and Ensemble Travel Group; the
latter recently named Fathom a preferred supplier.
Meanwhile, several agents have reached out with interested
clients, including Barbara Silver, manager of OmniTours in Deerfield, Ill.
Silver said she is trying to book a Fathom trip for a group
of about 40 in a central Florida retirement community in the fall of 2016. The
group leader is in her early 80s, Silver said, and honeymooned in Cuba.
“She’s very anxious to go back there and visit and bring her
travelers with her,” Silver said.
Cuba is the more expensive of the two itineraries, with
prices beginning at $1,800 per person for an inside cabin. Comparable cabins on
Dominican itineraries are $974.
Nevertheless, Cuba seems to be outselling the Dominican
Republic early on, even though Fathom’s program there is less developed.
Fathom’s president, Tara Russell, said that Cuba’s appeal is singular because
of the decades-long travel ban for Americans.
“The object for travel is totally different” than in the
Dominican Republic, she said, where the social impact work involved in a Fathom
cruise has to be the primary selling point.
“The latent demand for the Dominican Republic is smaller,”
she said. “There is less curiosity.”
In the D.R., Fathom passengers will spend three days docked
at Amber Cove, the new $85 million port near Puerto Plata. From there, they will fan out on buses to
help Dominicans with a range of projects.
One impact activity takes place in Altamira, about 20 miles
from port in the hills above Puerto Plata. There, Fathom passengers will help
out at Chocal, a cooperative formed by 30 local women so that they wouldn’t
have to move to bigger cities to find work and leave their families.
Chocal makes artisanal chocolate out of the cacao trees that
thrive on the tropical island.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has loaned the
money for equipment, but to pay the loans and hold down expenses, none of the
cooperative members draws a salary.
“They can’t afford to hire more people now until they pay
off their loans, so this volunteer program is just amazing,” said Caroline
Bucher, a consultant for Fathom in the Dominican Republic.
At Chocal, some passengers will help separate cacao beans
from their shells, a tedious process that can be only partially mechanized.
Others will assist with cutting, folding and gluing wrappers to the finished
chocolates or make fertilizer for a nursery that produces young cacao trees.
Elsewhere in the Puerto Plata region, Fathom cruisers will
visit schools to help with English instruction.
A group of Fathom employees and journalists on a “sampler”
tour at the Maria Isabel Meyreles school in Cupey sang a song in English with a
class of about 30 students. Afterward, the volunteers helped the students do a
worksheet that had them finish fill-in-the-blank questions about the English
Sabina Rodriguez, a regional educational administrator, said
foreign language skills in particular help Dominicans get jobs in the tourism
On another day, Fathom passengers might find themselves at a
factory helping to sift clay and mix materials for inexpensive ceramic water
filters that can turn river water 99% pure. A lunch of traditional Dominican
fare awaits after a morning’s work. The next day, they will help distribute the
filters and hear stories about how better water access improves families and
Russell said Fathom’s programs were developed with variety
in mind so that travelers will get a different type of experience each day.
To help agents promote such a new and different product,
Fathom is offering an across-the-board 15% commission through Oct. 15 for
agencies that register as Fathom Founder’s Circle members.
In the Dominican, Fathom is also offering a 1-for-9 tour
conductor credit during that time frame. For bookings of back-to-back cruises
to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Fathom is offering a 10% discount on the
fare for each departure.