Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Cruise lines and voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 14, 2010


I commented earlier on my feelings about for-profit voluntourism operators.  It seems that now a cruise line is offering a program of “voluntourism” for its guests.  The cruise line in question would be none other than Royal Caribbean–the very one that sent a cruise to a private beach at Labadee in Haiti which was separated from the rest of the country by barbed wire, just after the earthquake and thus when much of the country was suffering in even worse conditions than usual.   It was a huge PR embarrassment for Royal Caribbean at the time, and if voluntourism has become a big trend, then one can understand why they came up with this as a way of doing damage control for their reputation, if nothing else.

What is interesting about this is the statement by the CEO of Royal Caribbean that this highlights “our commitment to the local communities we visit.”  My definition of commitment to local communities is a little different from that of Royal Caribbean.  If Labadee is any indication, I am afraid that a group of well-to-do people people frolicking in a private beach resort that is separated from the rest of the country by barbed wire is not exactly any kind of commitment to local communities that I am aware of.   Yes, those few locals who manage to find work in the hospitality industry are let in past the barbed wire–but the rest of country is not.  And the visiting frolickers who come to use that little piece of the country for its beaches are not, as I understand it, allowed into the rest of the country.   It is a vacation defined by a wall of separation between the frolickers and the country as a whole.  The country is, in effect, used for its little piece of waterfront that serves as an exotic playground–not as a rich source of culture to be experienced and shared.  In fact, Wikipedia mentions that back in 1991 a journalist discovered that passengers who disembarked there were not even told that they were in Haiti.  That makes perfect sense for this type of vacation, when you think about it.

Royal Caribbean is cashing in on a trend, and while I respect the desire that people have to contribute in some way when they go on vacation, there are many fine non-profits out there that offer voluntourism as an expression of a fundamental philosophy that underlies their work.   I am not saying that people should live in squalor when they go on vacations, but I do think that vacations that are about immersion in another culture have more in common with volunteer work in a developing country than vacations that are about barbed wire isolation from that country.  A volunteer vacation in my mind is, or at least should be, one in which the vacation experience and the volunteer work are interrelated, both equally serving as expressions of community contact and support for the ongoing struggles that those in developing countries face every day.

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