Fathom passengers and representatives from the Dominican Institute for Integral Development present families with water filters.
Fathom passengers and representatives from the Dominican Institute for Integral Development present families with water filters. - 
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Cruises are big business these days. Cruise Market Watch estimates the worldwide cruise market at $39.6 billion for 2015.

But some passengers are looking for more than casinos and fancy shore excursions. Carnival Corporation’s new brand, Fathom Travel, is seeking to tap into a growing market with its social impact cruises to the Dominican Republic and cultural immersion cruises to Cuba.

Its ship, the Adonia, was the first U.S. cruise in decades to arrive in Havana in May. And its Social Impact cruises are now regularly bringing visitors who want to help out on humanitarian projects to the Dominican Republic. 

In the village of El Cupey, in the mountains above Puerto Plata, Maria Vargas sits on her porch with her family and a neighbor. The 43-year-old and the others are learning to speak English from passengers on Fathom’s cruise. Through an interpreter, Vargas explains that the weekly classes are giving them a chance to improve their lives, and the opportunity to get out of poverty.

“I want (my) family … to get a new opportunity for a job with this,” Vargas explained. “It has been a big benefit.”

Maria Vargas getting an English-speaking class.
Maria Vargas getting an English-speaking class. - 

Along with the English classes, Fathom’s social impact cruises allow passengers to do everything from laying cement floors in homes and planting trees to combat deforestation, to building ceramic water filters in a nation where more than 3 million people don’t have access to safe, piped water.

“You have a lot of diarrheal disease,” said Josh Elliott, international program director at Wine to Water in the artisan community of Higuerito, not far from Santiago. The company has built and distributed 316 water filters with the help of Fathom passengers since the cruises began.

“Fathom came to us with the idea and has really provided us with not only filters from volunteers working alongside us in the Dominican Republic, but it’s also given us an amazing platform,” Elliott said. “We’re inspiring people to give back when they go home and get off the ship".

But the Adonia – a ship that can carry about 700 people — was only about half-full on a mid-June trip to the Dominican Republic. Some passengers paid deeply discounted rates for the trip, and some didn’t participate in any of the social impact activities. But Fathom sees this as a growing market.

“We are building market awareness and are excited about the increased demand for this new travel experience," Fathom president Tara Russell said. She added that the company has made a significant investment to explore this new market, and that “it’s important that we prove out that market over time.” 

Fathom passengers make water filters at Wine to Water.
Fathom passengers make water filters at Wine to Water. - 

“I think the lasting effect is much more than we can imagine,” said David Luther, executive director of the Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI). IDDI has been on the ground in the Dominican Republic and Haiti for over 30 years, and organizes several of Fathom’s social impact activities.

“Fathom can leverage a lot of local assistance … it’s not just the support you can leverage on a daily basis,” Luther said. “Let’s say if we go to the government and say … 'Foreigners are coming in to help Dominicans and you’re not.’ It’s kind of like prodding them.”

He added that if the cruises go on for several years, people in the Dominican Republic will really be able to see the effects. But for Fathom to be successful, it must attract more passengers like Florida native Ken Maida, who said this is different from the 20 previous cruises he’s taken.

“This one is more for humanity,” Maida said. “This one’s more about volunteerism and giving back to the community, to people who don’t have as much as we do.”

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Follow Allison Keyes at @allisonradio