Travelers teach English to citizens of the Dominican Republic. The visit was part of Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom brand “social impact” cruises.
Allison Keyes

Lynda and Harry Taylor of Palmdale, Calif., stood under a thatched roof in El Cupey, surrounded by smiling Dominicans and their children. They’d just finished helping teach people in this mountain village in the Dominican Republic to speak English—a skill that’s vital to their chances of getting a job in a nation where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The Taylors are African Americans, and they say the opportunity to offer help to people who look like them was a very moving experience.

“That was something,” Lynda Taylor says. “In one of the English travel impacts we did, a lady spotted me out before we were even assigned to our family. I dubbed her my little sister! She was so wonderful and so giving and accepting and open … I wanted to work with people or come visit people like me—people of color—and this cruise came about and we thought it was a good idea.”

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“I think it’s empowering,” adds Harry Taylor. “I have a philosophy—it’s better to give than receive and we are our brother’s keeper … I think it gives purpose to our living and our existence when we go out and help.”

The Taylors took one of Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom brand social-impact cruises to the Dominican Republic in mid-June. The company also travels to Cuba for cultural-immersion cruises. The Adonia was the first U.S. cruise ship to land in Havana in nearly 40 years when it docked there in May. Fathom wants to give its passengers the opportunity to “travel deep” and get to know the culture of their destinations by helping with education, economic development and environmental issues, as well as getting involved with the unique cultural elements of both nations.

“We believed there was an opportunity to go and create an entirely different travel experience, an entirely different brand and company and market that was interested in a very different way to travel,” explains Tara Russell, president of Fathom and global-impact lead for Carnival Corp. and PLC. “We really studied and explored that hunger, and we looked at what is this hunger and how can we create a travel experience that allows us to achieve authentic impact.”

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In Cuba, the seven-day cruise includes stops in three cities, including Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Passengers visit historic sites, interact with local artists and musicians, sample Cuban cuisine and have the opportunity to speak with residents of the island and learn about their lives.

In the Dominican Republic, the social-impact activities range from helping to teach English to residents and helping to make chocolate and plant seedlings at the women’s cooperative Chocal Cacoa Factory, to helping to plant trees to fight deforestation and helping to make water filters in a country where more than 3 million people don’t have access to piped water.

“You have a lot of tourism down here, but there’s a sharp divide of folks who live day in and day out, and really live on very bad bottled water and just standing water,” says Josh Elliott, international program director at Wine to Water in Higuerito, the Dominican Republic. It’s an artisan community near the city of Santiago, where residents have worked with clay for more than three centuries. The technique used to make the ceramic water filters at the international nonprofit is also being used in Tanzania, and the company is helping to teach it in Uganda, too. Wine to Water is working in five countries right now, including the Dominican Republic and Ethiopia.

“A family of five can be supported by the filter for up to five years,” Elliott says, noting that bad water causes diarrheal diseases that often make children miss school and their parents miss work.

On the mid-June cruise, a group of passengers who made 29 water filters in a day had the chance to deliver three of them to three women who lived about a 15-minute walk away from the factory. The passengers, the women and their families, and a few neighbors applauded as the terra-cotta-colored filters were delivered.

“It’s very important,” Rosario Diaz tells The Root through an interpreter. “It’s important for [me] to be able to give it to small children, and for [me] to be able to drink and cook with. Also because the five-gallon [water] buckets [we] purchase are expensive and they add up over time.”

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Fathom passengers also have the opportunity to help lay cement floors in a place where some 30 percent of houses do not have them, says David Luther. He’s executive director of the 32-year-old Dominican Institute for Integral Development, which organizes several activities, including deforestation, water filters and the cement floors.

“You can imagine dirt floors, the effect this has on children, who many times don’t have underwear … and they sit on dirt floors,” Luther says. “They are health hazards. … When you help [people] who won’t have the opportunity to buy materials, it’s a game changer. … You increase the self-esteem of the people living there. They see their living conditions have been improved, and they feel better about themselves and about their futures.”

There have been some reports that Fathom has had trouble selling the cruises, which are the opposite of those offered on humongous ships that sport parks, casinos and high-powered entertainment. The cruise to the Dominican Republic in mid-June was about half full. But Fathom’s Russell points out the company has only been running the cruises since April.

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“Social-impact travel is a new category of travel, and the northern coast of the Dominican Republic is, for many, a yet-to-be-discovered destination,” she points out.

But people like Harry and Lynda Taylor are hooked.

“I think this is going to spread,” says Harry Taylor. “I see a real trajectory where it’s going to grow and expand.”

Lynda Taylor smiles broadly as she goes back over their experiences onshore.

“I had heard there was a difference as far as people of color interacting with each other, but I saw absolutely none of the differentiation or separation of colors here,” she says. “I saw all shades of black folk, and I loved it!”

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Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.