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Fathom Travel: Making an Impact in the Dominican Republic & Beyond

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Justin Walter is a travel writer based in L.A. He was on Fathom’s inaugural journey to the Dominican Republic. Read more about his Fathom adventures and the original version of this post here. The below has been edited from its original version. 

A year ago I launched my travel blog as an outlet to share my travel experiences around the world in hopes of inspiring others to travel. It’s been a lot of work but relatively “easy” to write my posts to date — until now. As I sit here struggling to describe my latest adventure, tears welling up in my eyes, I fear that words won’t capture the magic that was my Fathom experience to the Dominican Republic. No matter what I say or which photos I post, my hope is to breathe life into how Fathom has embraced Jackie Robinson’s words:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

About this adventure

Recently I was blessed and honored to participate in the inaugural sailing of Carnival Cruise’s new brand Fathom, which offers cruises to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Unlike anything available in the travel industry, Fathom Travel President Tara Russell has remarkably revolutionized the traditional cruise experience by combining it with social impact travel.

So what does this mean? Through Fathom, passengers on this 7-day cruise sail to the Dominican Republic and have the opportunity to participate in “impact activities” aimed at creating systematic, sustainable and long-term change in a country where over 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. The trip is not just about giving back, it’s also about cultural immersion, discovering the beauty of the Dominican people/land, personal growth and yes, having fun!

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Before going on what I referred to as a “service trip cruise,” I had my doubts. Having cruised before in the Caribbean, I wondered if something like this could actually work. I worried that the impact activities had the potential to be intrusive rather than transformative. I questioned if a cruise could provide the environment necessary for travelers to actually care about serving others. My list of concerns continued: Would we be welcomed? Dismissed as privileged? Challenged? Taken advantage of?

Reflecting back on my initial concerns now, I realize Fathom designed the trip to address any imaginable doubts I had. With intention behind every single element of Fathom’s design on both micro and macro levels, I stepped off the ship truly confident that this venture will have a positive impact in the Dominican Republic and on travelers that take the journey.

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Traveling there

Embarking on this trip as a solo traveler, I headed from Los Angeles to Miami where I boarded the Adonia in the Port of Miami.

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Within minutes I was lucky enough to meet Spencer SpellmanRachel RudwallLaura Lawson ViscontiJessica Blotter and Sean Krejci. Fate brought us together. From that moment forward we became a small tribe within a larger family on the ship. Tied by our common love for adventure travel, deep conversations, Settlers of Catan, LOST, the perfect fried egg, living outside our comfort zones, questioning the purpose of life, Dominican rum and laughter I never knew I could love a group of people so much in such a short period of time.

The close bonds strangers developed with one another on the cruise is a testament to the way Fathom designed the trip. During our first two days on board, we got to know each other through meals, workshops, activities and free time. After building a solid foundation, we then strengthened those bonds through impact activities, excursions, thoughtful conversations, late night games, drinking and dancing. Sailing back to Miami we then had time to decompress and let loose. Over seven days I was able to connect with so many incredible travelers from all over the globe who collectively have inspired me to be the best version of myself, a kinder traveler and a harder worker – and that’s just from being ON the ship!

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After a day and a half of sailing to the Dominican Republic we finally arrived at Amber Cove where our ship docked for four days. At a press conference on the ship with Carnival Cruise CEO Arnold Donald we learned that the company invested over $80 million in building the Puerto Plata port for Fathom and its other brands. Walking around, I was stunned — I hadn’t imagined that Amber Cove would be a gorgeous, resort-like destination. Similar to a Disneyland-esque gated community, this highly commercialized port offers a traditional cruise vacation, but serves as the gateway to a completely atypical experience.

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What I did

The heart of Fathom lies in its “impact activities.” It’s standard in the cruise industry for ships to offer a variety of excursions for passengers when they arrive at their port destinations. What makes Fathom unique (and frankly, groundbreaking) is in addition to standard “shore excursions” like museum tours, ziplining, snorkeling and deep sea fishing, passengers have the opportunity to spend their time serving those in need. The company has actually (and impressively) partnered up with two local community development organization in the Dominican Republic, Entrena and IDDI, to create and facilitate the impact activities aimed at making changes in 1) Education 2) Environment & 3) Economic Development.

Currently the DR Impact Activities include:

  • Reforestation & Nursery
  • Recycled Paper & Crafts Entrepreneurship
  • Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative
  • Community English Conversation & Learning
  • Student English Conversation & Learning
  • Water Filtration Production
  • Concrete Floors in Community Homes
  • Creative Arts, Music & Sports
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One of the best things about Fathom is it’s really up to you to decide what you want your experience to look like. My friend Spencer Spellman said it perfectly — it’s a DIY Cruise. You can spend every day serving others through impact activities or split your time between them and other excursions – it’s completely up to you! For my experience, I chose to spend my time doing four impact activities and one personal excursion.

Concrete Floors in Community Homes

In this impact activity a group of about 25 of us traveled to the El Javillar community in Puerto Plata where roughly 3,000 people live in poverty. On the bus ride to El Javillar our IDDI guide Lawrence told us that many of the homes in the community have dirt floors. When building their homes, families can only afford to construct them piece-by-piece – a wall, a room, a roof and, if they’re lucky, concrete floors. Families living without concrete floors are often plagued by illness caused by unsanitary living environments. Lawrence shared that providing a family with a concrete floor dramatically improves health, but also pride. For an in-depth look at this experience, click here.

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Water Filtration Production

Today over 663 million people around the world lack access to clean drinking water. In the Dominican Republic, over 3 million residents have no access to piped water at all. Recognizing that access to clean, drinkable water is a crisis around the world, Fathom and Entrena have partnered with the non-profit organization Wine To Water to create clay water filtration systems in the DR. For an in-depth look at this experience, click here.

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Community English Conversation & Learning

The ability to speak English opens up many doors for Dominicans, especially for higher education and job opportunities. During this impact activity Entrena guides brought us to a local community where we were given English lesson plans, paired up with members of the community and taken to their actual homes to teach English. For an in-depth look at this experience, click here.

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Reforestation & Nursery

Together Fathom and IDDI are working together to restore land in the DR that has been degraded largely due to agricultural deforestation. Depending on the day, this impact activity gives Fathom travelers the opportunity to plant seeds at a nursery or trees throughout the region. For an in-depth look at this experience, click here.

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27 Waterfalls & More

As an adventure traveler who loves exploring the outdoors, in addition to my impact activities I wanted to do something unique to the DR. That’s exactly the experience I got exploring 27 Waterfalls just 20 minutes from Amber Cove (blog coming soon). My three hours of hiking through the jungle, jumping off cliffs and sliding down waterfalls was an adrenaline filled way to enjoy the beauty of the DR.

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My time in Puerto Plata was marked by four impact activities and one personal excursion. The best part is these just scratch the surface — Fathom provides so many impactful, unique and interesting opportunities for travelers to explore, understand and appreciate the Dominican Republic.

Where I stayed

Our home for the week was Adonia, a smaller ship that can hold up to about 700 passengers, a fraction of the size of the ships I had been on in the past. Despite its smaller size, it still has all the same amenities of larger ships – restaurants, bars, outdoor pool, gym, spa, interior rooms to suites and on-board activities.

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I absolutely loved having a cruise ship as our home base throughout our DR journey. In a lot of ways it felt like an adult, family-friendly summer camp. Participating in activities on and off the ship, it was always nice to come home to the same group of people who were excited to open up with one another about their shared and different experiences. Sure, Fathom has some kinks to work out (like any new company), but overall they did a phenomenal job of using Adonia as a vehicle to establish a sense of community and greater purpose among travelers. By the end of the trip, I recognized so many faces, created lasting friendships and walked around the hallways as if I were attending my 10 year college reunion. We truly established a “Fathom Family” unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in all of my travels.

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If you’re interested in booking a trip with Fathom (which I hope you are!) below is the pricing as of April 2016. Click here to book your trip now!

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Justin’s Takeaways

When I’m commonly asked the question, “Why do you love to travel?” I’m guilty of usually rattling off a list of selfish reasons. For a majority of my life, my love for travel has been centered on personal growth — experiencing the world through adventures that offer me a deeper understanding of humanity in hopes of becoming a more well-rounded and educated global citizen. When it comes down to it, most people travel for selfish reasons and that’s ok.

Fathom challenged me to go beyond my selfish love for travel by giving me the opportunity to be selfless through travel. It’s a company that is truly changing the travel narrative by making impact travel accessible and mainstream, while at the same time still tapping into the core of why we love travel. Through a cruise, let me say that again, a cruise, I have reignited my passion to live a life of importance by having a positive impact on the world. My service in the Dominican Republic may have been finite, but its impact on my life (and the DR) will be infinite.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Thank you Fathom for being important. Your impact on the world will #TravelDeep.

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