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Cruise Voluntourism: Ways to Give Back at Sea

Group of volunteers

How would you feel about volunteering to help someone during your next cruise vacation? Most cruise lines offer programs to help you find that sweet spot where you are having fun on your trip while also taking a bit of your time to pitch in to aid those who might be less fortunate.

Voluntourism, a longtime travel industry niche, is rising in popularity as a way for travelers to give back and make a difference in the communities they visit.

The effort has spread to cruises, where itineraries offer charitable initiatives onboard and excursions with an eye toward volunteering in port. Cruise lines have long been proud of their good deeds on the corporate level, but the cruise industry is increasingly involving passengers, on and off the ship, and offering sailings dedicated to supporting individual charities.

Carnival Corp. even launched a specific brand called Fathom in June 2015 to send a dedicated ship, Adonia, to Carnival's new port in the Dominican Republic: Amber Cove. While Fathom, Carnival Corp.'s 10th line, is geared specifically for cruises designed to aid communities in the Dominican Republic with passenger volunteers, the entire cruise industry offers a wide variety of ways for cruisers to partake in voluntourism -- even if you don't want to dedicate your whole vacation to that purpose.

So what can you expect if you are looking to add a few good deeds to your next voyage? Here are the latest philanthropic offerings from ship to shore

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Fathom volunteering

Social Impact on Shore

Carnival's Fathom brand starts its sailings to Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic in April 2016. Passengers on the 710-passenger Adonia, which is redeployed from Carnival's P&O Cruises fleet for the new brand, pay about $1,600 per person for the week and sail roundtrip from Miami. The cruise involves two days of sailing to reach Amber Cove, during which time orientation and impact training take place to prepare passengers for on-the-ground activities in the Dominican Republic.

Passengers become part of a team that will spend three days in the Puerto Plata region of the country and work alongside others in activities revolving around education, the environment and economic development. That could mean teaching English or assisting in organic cultivation of cacao plants. The cruise also includes free time to enjoy some of the natural wonders of the region, and guests can choose to do an extra excursion or grab some beach time.

For regular cruise lines, volunteer activities can be done as part of shore excursions. Holland America rolled out its first shoreside volunteer activities in Alaska in 2009 with a program called "Cruise With Purpose." Available on all itineraries that stop in Juneau, the excursion benefits two local environmental organizations -- the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program and the Marine Conservation Alliance. Passengers board research vessels to document humpback and orca whale populations. They also measure ocean temperatures, gather plankton and collect water samples -- readings that serve as a barometer for the annual salmon run season in Alaska. The trip is capped with stops to remove debris and non-native material from local beaches.

Another example: Crystal Cruises' "You Care, We Care" program offers free shore excursions that involve volunteering activities during sailings on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. Depending on the itinerary, excursions might include assisting animals in Spain, Germany or Norway; helping disadvantaged residents in Croatia, Colombia or Italy; working with underprivileged children in Costa Rica, Fiji or the United States; and restoring Fort Stevens State Park in Astoria, Oregon.

Other lines also offer their own ways to get involved with local nonprofit and research organizations. Shore work can range from projects supporting wildlife -- counting penguins to assist researchers in Antarctica as part of a Lindblad Expeditions trip, for instance -- to gaining a closer look at life in and around some ports. Blount Small Ship Adventures supports an orphanage in Guatemala that passengers on Central America cruises can visit. Firsthand visits often spark more donations, cruise lines say.

Charter companies have also been active in bringing on-shore fundraising and volunteer work to cruises. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, hosted a seven-night charter by Sweet, a lesbian travel company that wove in volunteer work throughout the trip. A three-day pre-cruise package in New Orleans included replanting trees with a local Hurricane Katrina relief group. Volunteer options also were rolled into shore excursions. Travelers could help to paint a wing of a children's hospital in Belize City or clean a mile-long stretch of beach in Costa Maya, Mexico. Cruise organizers stressed that the volunteer activities in port still had a good dose of fun and relaxation. The beach cleanup, for instance, took place adjacent to a resort where the organizers hosted an afternoon of music, beach volleyball and kayaking.

Additionally, is a nonprofit company that helps connect cruise passengers who want to volunteer with island-based organizations (in Antigua, Barbados, Belize, St. Lucia, St. Thomas and Tortola, as of June 2015). Cruisers pick the group or charity that is the best fit for their expertise, and they might spend the day ashore playing with orphans or preparing meals, caring for animals or painting and cleaning in areas in need of upkeep. This day of volunteering serves as your independently booked excursion for the day in port.

Cruising for a Cause

Charity Cruises

Sailings dedicated to supporting a single charity often come with the added perk of being partially tax deductible. Princess Cruises' "Cruising for a Cause" initiative, for example, dedicates an entire sailing to a specific charity.

In 2013, Princess Cruises generated $300,000 each for two charities committed to U.S. veterans -- the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and Operation Homefront -- during a four-night Western Caribbean cruise from Houston. A portion of every cruise fare for the event -- ranging from $100 to $300 per person, depending on stateroom category -- was evenly donated to the two charities. That portion was also tax deductible for the cruise passengers. (Additional Cruising for a Cause sailings are not currently scheduled.

Some organizations charter out cruise ships for charity-driven theme cruises.

For example, the Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund for cancer research hosts an annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, with the national championship-winning football coach and former Ohio State players onboard. The 2015 sailing on Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas raised about $2 million for cancer research.

Also, in March 2014, a seven-night sailing on Carnival Miracle to the Mexican Riviera offered travelers a chance to book their trip as part of a "Cruise for the Troops" fundraiser to benefit members of the military and their families. Passengers were invited to sponsor the cruise for members of the military who otherwise couldn't afford the trip.

Travelers seeking cruises with potential tax deductions should keep a few things in mind. In the eyes of the tax man, taking a charity cruise is much like attending a charity dinner, for which a portion of the ticket price can be written off. According to Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for the tax and accounting group at tax information firm CCH, "If you go to a charitable dinner and pay, say, a hundred bucks for the ticket, and the value of the food is $40, the remaining amount is deductible. It's a similar concept."

To ensure glitch-free deductions, passengers should check for whether the beneficiary is on the Internal Revenue Service's list of approved charities. Passengers should also get receipts for their contributions. Additionally, Luscombe suggests that travelers make payments directly to the charities (rather than to the cruise lines) to ensure the deductions can be claimed.

Groove for St. Jude

Onboard Fundraising

Causes ranging from children's health and cancer research to education and Antarctic penguin protection have found outlets onboard cruise ships. A program with a wide reach is "On Deck for a Cause," a shipboard giving program from Holland America that benefits six international cancer organizations in the United States, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Germany and United Kingdom. As part of the event, participants are asked to make donations of $20 each. On a day at sea, participants join in a 5K walk around the decks of the ship. For the donation, passengers get T-shirts and wristbands and are treated to a reception after the event. Nearly 500 "On Deck for a Cause" events are planned annually across the HAL fleet, and the line announced in 2015 that its 10-year-old program had raised more than $4.3 million since its inception. Princess Cruises offers a similar "On Deck for a Cure" program that benefits the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Royal Caribbean hosts an onboard "Walk for Wishes" during its sailings. The one-mile walks benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a children's charity. Passengers who make donations to Make-A-Wish get T-shirts that read, "I helped grant a wish." The event on the fleet's largest ship, Allure of the Seas, for example, raises anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 during a weeklong sailing. The cruise line couples that fundraising effort with a series of fleetwide auctions each June. Passengers can bid on behind-the-scenes tours of the ship and other insider experiences like blowing the ship's whistle. Additionally, Royal Caribbean puts donation envelopes in all passenger cabins each June, and contributions go directly to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Carnival operates the "Care to Play: Carnival for St. Jude Kids" campaign onboard all its ships for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Passengers can choose from several onboard activities that raise money for cancer research. The campaign, according to Carnival, is on track to raise $8 million by 2017 through a range of activities -- both onboard and ashore. Cruisers can donate $10 to participate in the "Groove for St. Jude" dance party in its onboard nightclubs, and kids can build keepsake teddy bears -- with doctor apparel and accessories -- or purchase the children's book, "The Dream Plucker of Perrysport," with all proceeds going to St. Jude.

Other lines also appeal directly to travelers for contributions. Celebrity Cruises raises about $150,000 each year for the Galapagos Fund via donations made by passengers on Celebrity Xpedition. And travelers on Lindblad Expeditions can make donations to the Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic Fund, which raises money for conservation and sustainable tourism projects; 100 percent of passenger donations go directly to on-the-ground projects.

Beyond appeals for cash contributions, cruise lines feature onboard auctions. These types of events are a regular presence on Hapag-Lloyd and Voyages of Discovery sailings. At each farewell gala on every Hapag-Lloyd voyage, the ship's captain steps into the role of auctioneer to sell the sea chart from the sailing. All of the proceeds go to the cruise company's Germany-based charity, Stiftunglife, which supports projects such as providing solar lamps for remote villages and providing scholarships for children in Africa and Asia. Voyages of Discovery auctions off its sea charts to raise money for a Philippines-based foundation that works with the physically disabled.

MSC Cruises holds music-themed Jam Cruises every year, working with Positive Legacy, a charitable organization that integrates live music and service. Jam Cruises feature service activities, such as planting vegetation or restoring parks, at port stops. Passengers on AmaWaterways' Mekong River cruises have the opportunity to visit the ODA Free Village English School in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which the cruise line supports. There, they can donate basic school supplies, such as pencils and notebooks. The cruise line also offers a way for passengers to donate money.

If you're a cruiser who also has the desire to give a little bit of time or money to help others during your vacation, you can contact cruise lines directly to ask about all their charitable initiatives.

--By John Roberts, Cruise Critic contributor

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