You've zip-lined, trekked, toured and wine-tasted your way through ports of call in all corners of the globe, but now more cruise lines are betting that 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 growing niche in the travel industry, is now spreading to cruises, as more itineraries offer charitable initiatives onboard and excursions with a philanthropic bent, before and during the trip. Cruise lines have long been proud of their good deeds on the corporate level, but these days, the cruise industry is increasingly involving passengers, both on and off the ship, and is even offering sailings that are dedicated to supporting individual charities.
Take a recent trip on the Carnival Fantasy, for example. Before the ship set sail for five days in the Western Caribbean last winter, passengers gathered for admittedly atypical tree-planting and clearing of branches from a park in New Orleans. The day of community service -- prior to a bloggers cruise hosted by Carnival's 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.
Sailings dedicated to supporting a single charity often come with the added perk of being partially tax deductible. Silversea Cruises is offering two such trips this year, including a 12-night voyage in July from a remote Norwegian outpost on the rim of the Arctic Circle. Silversea's Prince Albert II expedition ship will navigate through clusters of glacier-marked islands and ice packs -- home to walruses and polar bears -- and visit a port with a research station that studies the polar climate. Shore-side hikes are led by experts on the region, while a geoscientist gives onboard lectures on environmental topics.
And, since a portion of the hefty cruise fare (prices range from $3,697 to $16,077 per person) benefits the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation -- a supporter of environmental initiatives like renewable energy -- up to 30 percent of cost of the trip is tax-deductible.
The line is also hosting a seven-night October sailing from Venice to Rome, led by celebrity chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. The trip benefits the James Beard Foundation, which supports culinary education and scholarship programs (among other foodie initiatives) and is 35 percent tax deductible.
For travelers seeking cruises with potential tax deductions, there are a few things to keep in mind. In the eyes of the tax man, taking a charity cruise is much like attending a charity dinner, where 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 that travelers have a glitch-free deduction, the beneficiary should be on the Internal Revenue Service's list of approved charities. Passengers should also get receipts for their contributions. Additionally, Luscombe suggests that travelers have payments go directly to the charities (rather than to the cruise lines) to ensure that the deductions can be claimed. In fact, Silversea requires that travelers book charity trips through outside travel agents; cruise deposits are made to Silversea, but final payments for the trips are made directly to the charities themselves.
Causes, ranging from children's health and cancer research to education and Antarctic penguin protection all have found outlets onboard cruise ships. But, the program with the widest reach is On Deck for the Cure, which benefits Susan G. Koman for the Cure, a breast cancer research foundation. As part of the event, originally introduced by Holland America (and now offered by four additional lines in the Carnival Corp. family), onboard participants make donations of $10 to $18 (depending on the line) and get T-shirts, wristbands and pink lemonade-fueled wrap-up parties. The highlight of each event is a once-a-cruise, group walk (between one and five kilometers in length) around the ship.
Holland America has raised more than $1.5 million for the cause since it first introduced the program back in 2006, and walks on last year's Grand World Voyage raised $50,000 alone. Other participating lines -- including Carnival, Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises -- also host walk-a-thons, while the Yachts of Seabourn opts for onboard trivia contests that benefit the Koman foundation.
Royal Caribbean, for its part, hosts an onboard "Walk for Wishes" on each seven-night cruise. The one-mile walks benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a children's charity. The cruise line couples that fundraising effort with a series of fleetwide auctions each June. Passengers can bid on behind-the-scene tours of the ship and other insider experiences like blowing the ship's whistle. Additionally, Royal Caribbean puts donation envelopes in guest rooms 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. They can donate $10 to participate in the "Groove for St. Jude" dance party in the ships' discos, and kids can build a keepsake teddy bear -- 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. Koman 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 are also bringing auctions onboard. This year, Crystal Cruises rolled out onboard auctions on four itineraries, mostly 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 kids' charity. 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 a farewell gala, which happens 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, which total three 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 now in ten 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.
There are also more grassroots initiatives involving passengers. In January, organizers of a music-themed "Jam Cruise" on the MSC Orchestra rounded up four pallets' worth of donations from passengers for seven schools in Belize. Items ranged from school supplies and clothing to sporting equipment and refurbished laptop computers. A cash donation was also made to a Hurricane Dean-damaged school in Costa Maya, Mexico -- one of the ports of call on the itinerary. When passengers learned about the donations, they kicked in an additional $1,440 to aid in the rebuilding of the school. 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 (pencils, notebooks, etc.) Following multiple requests from passengers, the cruise line is currently setting up a way for guests to donate financially as well.
Lending a Hand On Shore
Volunteer activities are still an emerging part of shore excursions, but there are efforts worth noting. 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 through September, 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.
Another example: Crystal Cruises' new "You Care, We Care" program offers free shore excursions that involve volunteering activities.
Cruise Critic member harbormaster was on Crystal Serenity for the program's debut and posted, "Just wanted to add that we took the first ever Crystal 'Volunteer' excursion yesterday in Cartagena. This was one of the best excursions we have ever taken. It was with the Foundacion Granitos de Paz, which serves one of the barrios in the city…. There were 7 of us on this first time volunteer excursion. We had a great time interacting with the children, and the elderly, and visiting the homes and gardens. There also was the possibility of helping with the gardening, craft-making and painting. The children and residents were wonderful and it gave us a great chance to interact on a cultural basis with the people of the city."
Possible excursions, dependent of course on your itinerary, include weeding and learning about geology at the Makapu'u Beach Native Coastal Plant Preserve in Honolulu; cookie-baking, painting or gardening at the SOS Children's Village in Santa Lucia, Uruguay; painting a school or community center in St. Martin; engaging orphans in games and play time in Rio de Janeiro; and assisting with restoration efforts at Fort Stevens State Park in Astoria, Oregon.
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. The American Canadian Caribbean Line supports an orphanage in Guatemala, and passengers on Central America cruises can visit. First-hand visits, say cruise lines, often spark more donations.
Charter companies have also been active in bringing onshore fundraising and volunteer work to cruises. Carnival hosted a pre-cruise charity concert to support music education in public schools. The event was attended by 800 passengers before they set sail on the "Mayercraft Carrier 2," the aptly named second annual music cruise to Cabo San Lucas, hosted by John Mayer. Cruise organizers would not reveal details to Cruise Critic about the money that was raised.
Norwegian Cruise Line 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. There were also volunteer options 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 clean-up, for instance, took place adjacent to a resort where the organizers hosted an afternoon of music, beach volleyball and kayaking.
--by Amy Gunderson, Cruise Critic Contributor. Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief