“Voluntourism” Exposed: What Americans Don’t Know About New “Social Impact” Vacation Cruises

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In April 2016, the new cruise ship “Fathom,” owned by one of the large corporate players in the overseas travel industry, Carnival Cruises, was released for its first trip ever, to the Dominican Republic. Aboard this vessel were hundreds of customers waiting to experience the joy and fulfillment of combining their vacation with the chance to provide service to communities in underdeveloped countries. This form of traveling is referred to as “voluntourism” or socially responsible tourism (SRT), which is promoted as one way that members of wealthy countries can support developing ones through vacations organized as volunteer and mission trips. Although these trips sound effective and appealing at first, they often have underlying problems that pose threats to the economy and wellbeing of community members in host countries.

The popularity of international travel and volunteering has been increasing since the 1990s and has become an important status symbol in social corporate responsibility as well as in the development of young adults wanting to build their experience. One of the most publicized experiences offered are visits to orphanages where voluntourists can laugh and play with young locals. As a result of this demand, however, orphanages have begun to exploit children.

This exploitation begins with the separation of children from their families who are unable to provide for them, and willingly give up their children for the promise that they will be compensated with food or money. “80% of children in orphanages in Uganda have at least one living parent,” according to a report in the Guardian. With the hype and social media coverage around orphanage volunteerism, there is more of an incentive for poor adults in developing countries to run false orphanages in order to embezzle money. Sympathetic Americans participating in voluntourism may unwittingly contribute to these unjust operations.

With new cruise ships, like the “Fathom” hitting the US travel market, there is further encouragement for the practice of orphanage trafficking. It is also important to see that the workers exploiting these children are not the only ones taking advantage of the emphasis on volunteerism. The large million-dollar corporations that operate these new cruise ships are using countries that are stifled with poverty and crumbling infrastructure as a selling point to amass bigger profits. With basic business marketing strategies, like changing the description of these trips from a “voluntourism” experience to a “social impact” experience, these cruise lines can trick the American public into thinking they are providing long term benefits for communities.

Many corporate media outlets have reported on the idea hybrid vacations that mix traditional cruise features with volunteer service, but they have failed to tell the whole story. The New York Times talked briefly of the controversial topic of “voluntourism” and the economics of it, but focused mainly on the benefits of social impact cruises, calling them a “legitimate travel niche”. Other large media outlets that reported on this topic included the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Both media sources claimed that cruise line operators intend to address the negative aspects of “voluntourism,” while also providing readers with cruise pricing and benefits.


“SRT: The Negative Impacts of Voluntourism & Fathom Cruises,” Una Vaina Bien Spanish, December 16, 2016, http://www.unavainabienspanish.com/srt-fathom-cruises/.

Mark Riley, “Volunteers are Fueling the Growth of Orphanages in Uganda,” Guardian, May 16, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/may/16/volunteers-stop-visiting-orphanages-start-preserving-families.

Student Researcher: Kelsey Sparrow (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)