Voluntourism, or “giving back,” is an appealing concept, but apparently hasn’t worked exactly as Fathom, the social impact brand, had hoped. News surfaced last week that Fathom's cruises to the Dominican Republic and Cuba on the 704-passenger Adonia will end by late spring.
Carnival Corp.'s corporate spokesman Roger Frizzell confirmed that Fathom’s sole ship will return to P&O Cruises in June and sail for that U.K.-sourced brand for the summer.
Yet, the company is insistent that Fathom is a success in many ways. “Fathom continues to receive some of the highest ratings in the company based on guest surveys,” says Frizzell. "Fathom is continuing, but just in a different form working through all our brands,”
Fathom had previously announced "social impact" shore excursions would be offered by other brands in the Carnival Corp. fleet including AIDA Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Costa Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and P&O Cruises.
Those shore trips involve such "voluntourism" activities as teaching English to school children or pouring concrete for homes.
Tara Russell, Fathom’s president, is expected to manage the remaining Fathom-operated cruise operations. She’ll also lead the company's effort to grow Fathom in the Dominican Republic and other markets.
"We hope to expand the Fathom experience to other markets in the future," said Frizzell. "We are anxious to see it grow and expand in other ways going forward.”
While Cuba was gaining in popularity with consumers eager to see an island nation "closed" to Americans for decades, Fathom's Dominican Republic cruises had been a tougher sell, reflected by low-ball pricing on some sailings.
What about Cuba, though? Frizzell says Carnival Corp. has already requested approval from Cuba to sail to the island nation with its other brands, starting in June 2017.
While it’s not known when, or if, the permission will be granted, Carnival’s established contacts within Cuba and with the Cuban government will likely help speed things along. Also, using another brand could open up the possibility for a larger ship in the Cuba market.
“We plan to continue sailing to Cuba for many years to come based on the success of our first cruises to the country which have proven to extremely successful,” said Frizzell.
The news was a blow, though, to travel agencies who have supported the Fathom cruises and spent the time and effort to educate and seek out the right clients for the product.
Many agents we spoke to said Fathom was so different a product -- definitely not a typical cruise. It was a “give back” experience, but while that was highly appealing to churches and charitable groups, it may not have been a message that resonated with enough typical cruise guests.
“I did offer it to a few clients as an option this fall, and they all said they wanted a newer ship and they were not looking for the experiences offered on board,” says Candie Steinman, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Fort Myers, FL. She said those clients viewed their trip as a vacation and didn’t want “to work.”
While Adonia was newly refurbished prior to beginning the Fathom cruises, it was an older ship lacking the “wow” features of some of the cruise industry’s newer ships – like surfing pools, water parks or a dozen or more dining venues.
Given its mission, Fathom did offer interesting shipboard activities focused on the destination and voluntourism. But it also lacked some features experienced cruisers often desire, including "robust" song-and-dance production shows or an onboard casino.
While Steinman hadn’t sailed on the ship, she knows several travel agent friends who had and says they thought it a fabulous experience. But she acknowledges, “this was something that needed to be promoted by agents, as it was not well known to consumers.”
In addition, “with the lower price points offered, I am [also] guessing that the agents were more eager to sell other products which made them more money,” she notes.
"It saddens me that Fathom is ceasing operations [as a stand-alone product, at least at this time],” says Phyllis Dale of Great Escapes Travel, Lake Mary, FL, who had a large group booked under deposit for a December 10, 2017, sailing.
She hasn’t yet heard from Fathom about the booking, but told her clients about the Fathom update over the weekend, and said of Fathom: “I am sure they will give full refunds.”
Dale’s overall take, though? “To be honest, I am not surprised,” she notes. “I was with a group on their May 15 Cuba cruise. I found many areas that needed critical attention. Hopefully, another cruise line will fill the void.”
Steinman says she would have loved to have cruised on Fathom, especially to Cuba, but didn’t not get the opportunity: “I for one, am sad it will be gone, and wish I had been able to support its worthy causes.”