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Cruise Voluntourism: Ways to Give Back at Sea

Hands Around the World You've zip-lined, trekked, toured and wine-tasted your way through ports of call in all corners of the globe. How will you get your next thrill? Cruise lines are betting you might want to add beach-cleaning, school-building or even charitable fundraising to your next sailing.

Enter the volunteer vacation, cruise-style. "Voluntourism," a travel industry niche, has spread to cruises, where itineraries offer charitable initiatives onboard and excursions with an eye toward philanthropy, before and during the trip. 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 offers sailings dedicated to supporting individual charities.

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Carnival Fantasy, for example, organized a pre-cruise event that had passengers gather for tree-planting and clearing branches at a park in New Orleans before the ship set sail for five days in the Western Caribbean in 2009. The day of community service -- before a bloggers cruise hosted by Carnival's famous cruise director John Heald -- was capped with a $5,000 donation to a local charity.

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

Charity Cruises

Sailings dedicated to supporting a single charity often come with the added perk of being partially tax deductible. For example, in 2013, Princess Cruises launched its first fundraising sailing. Princess 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 in November 2013. Princess President and CEO Alan Buckelew, a Vietnam veteran, was onboard to host the cruise, and 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.

Some organizations charter out cruise ships for charity-driven theme cruises. In March 2014, a seven-night sailing on Carnival Miracle to the Mexican Riviera offers travelers a chance to book their trip as part of the "Cruise for the Troops" fundraiser that benefits members of the military and their families. Passengers also are invited to sponsor the cruise for members of the military who might not otherwise be able to 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, principle 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 to see if 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.

Onboard Fundraising

On Deck for the Cure Causes, ranging from children's health and cancer research to education and Antarctic penguin protection, all have found outlets onboard cruise ships. A program with a wide reach is "On Deck for a Cause," a shipboard giving program that benefits six international cancer organizations in the United States, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Germany and United Kingdom. As part of the event, originally introduced by Holland America (and offered by four additional lines in the Carnival Corp. family), onboard 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.

Other participating lines -- including Carnival, Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises -- also host walk-a-thons, while Seabourn opts for onboard trivia contests.

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 with a goal of raising $3 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital over a three-year period. Passengers can choose from several onboard activities, which will raise money for cancer research. The campaign, according to Carnival's website, has raised more than $2.7 million as of March 2013. Cruisers can donate $10 to participate in the "Groove for St. Jude" dance party in the ship discos, 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. In addition to supporting the Susan G. Komen foundation, Costa Cruises raises money for the World Wildlife Fund to assist marine projects in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean's Greater Antilles and Northeastern Brazil. Celebrity Cruises gives guests the opportunity to donate to the Galapagos Fund onboard. Australia-based Orion Expeditions matches its guests' donations to a women's sewing cooperative in the Solomon Islands. And travelers on Lindblad Expeditions can make donations to the Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic Joint Fund for Exploration and Conservation, which raises money for conservation and sustainable tourism projects.

Beyond appeals for cash contributions, cruise lines feature onboard auctions. Crystal Cruises offers auctions on long-haul transpacific and Atlantic voyages with multiple days at sea. Up for grabs? Behind-the-scenes tours of ships' wine cellars and private tours of the bridges with the ships' captains. Donations support the Conde Nast Traveler Five + Alive Fund, a program that invites cruisers to help save the lives of children 5 and younger around the world by making donations that pay for clean drinking water, basic medicines, mosquito netting and nutrition. The line also has merchandise for sale, including collared shirts and bracelets that benefit the cause.

Auctions are also a regular presence on Voyages of Discovery and Hapag-Lloyd sailings. At the 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. The proceeds, more than 3 million euros to date, go to the cruise company's Germany-based charity that sets up children's homes around the world. The homes, all named MS Europa (after the line's flagship carrier), are in 10 locations throughout Asia, South America, Africa and the Caribbean. Voyages of Discovery auctions off its sea charts to raise money for a Philippines-based foundation that works with the physically disabled.

Some sailings engage passengers in more grassroots initiatives. In January 2013, organizers of a music-themed "Jam Cruise" on MSC Poesia held a day of service during a stop at Turks and Caicos. Passengers helped plant vegetation and fix a fence to help restore a park damaged by Hurricane Ike. More than $6,000 also was donated for the installation of playground equipment in the park. MSC Cruiseswill hold the Jam Cruise's 12th sailing in 2014 and, as always, feature service activities at one of its 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.

Lending a Hand On Shore

Volunteer activities have made their way into shore excursions, too. 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 local 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.

Polar Research Another example: Crystal Cruises' "You Care, We Care" program offers free shore excursions that involve volunteering activities during sailings on Crystal Serenity or Crystal Symphony. Depending on your itinerary, excursions may include assisting animals in Spain, Germany and Norway; helping disadvantaged residents in Croatia, Italy and Spain; working with underprivileged children in the Ukraine, Singapore and the United States; fighting hunger in Estonia, Canada and the United States; and restoring Fort Stevens State Park in Astoria, Oregon. In February 2013, Cruise Critic member hubbards posted, "My husband and I participated in the Food Bank project in Tallinn, Estonia. It was very rewarding. I would highly recommend participating in these programs, particularly if you have already visited a port and do not want to see the usual tourist spots."

Other lines also offer their own ways to get involved with local non-profit 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. Hapag-Lloyd offers passengers the option to visit its network of children's homes whenever its ships make a stop in one of the ten ports where the homes are located. Blount Small Ship Adventures supports an orphanage in Guatemala, that passengers on Central America cruises can visit. First-hand 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.

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

--by Amy Gunderson, Cruise Critic Contributor. Updated by John Roberts, Cruise Critic contributor


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