What makes a tourist a ‘voluntourist’? The term comprises a host of programmes of different lengths and  activities around the world, from gap-yearing students to philanthropic baby boomers and cohorts of millennials eager to ‘give back’ to the communities they visit.

With such a wide variety of projects and providers, attempting to define the current number of participants in voluntourism is no easy task. An April 2016 report by market intelligence agency Mintel highlighted, “As might be expected of a tourism niche that is difficult to quantify, estimates about the size of the voluntourism market vary widely, from just over 1.6 million [in 2008]  to over 10.0 million in 2016. It is clear, however, that it is a rapidly growing segment of the travel industry.”

Projections for where this growth might lead are, in places, startling. Mintel suggests that if current market share remains the same, voluntourist numbers in the US alone could reach 16.3 million by 2030. Other estimates go further, with a VolunTourism Institute blog post floating the possibility that 2020 will see 20 million in the US and 25–30 million worldwide.

Luxury meets charity

It’s no wonder that cruise companies are waking up to the growth in demand and opportunities that such programmes present. One striking example is Carnival’s dedicated voluntourism line, Fathom, which launched in April with the 704-passenger Adonia. Offering trips to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Fathom offers what it calls ‘impact travel’, with passengers working alongside local residents in existing shoreside volunteer programmes.

Another project – one of the first within commercial cruising – is Crystal Cruises’ You Care We Care (YCWC) voluntourism programme. Established in 2011, these land-based programmes facilitate the seemingly unlikely sight of luxury-cruise guests put to work, whether that means pulling up ecologically destructive weeds in Hawaii, helping orphans with their homework in South Africa or lending a hand at a food bank in San Francisco. According to John Stoll, Crystal’s vice-president of land programmes, it is an arrangement that wasn’t obvious to guests either, but one they have welcomed with open arms.

Speaking from Crystal’s Los Angeles office, Stoll explains, “When you look at the guests we cater to, they’re community people; they’re involved in causes at home as well. But I think it has never occurred to them before that they could make a difference while they are on vacation.”

Charitable action is well established on today’s cruise ships, whether through on-board collections or special fundraising itineraries such as Princess’s Cruising for a Cause initiative, launched in 2012 in support of charitable organisations such as the American Heart Association.

Departure from the norm

Crystal’s YCWC programme departs from the traditional charity-driven model in two substantial ways. First, there is no direct fundraising revenue from the programmes, which are small in scale, targeted at a select group of passengers and free of charge. This last point meant that initially making the case for the programme was something of a novel experience for Stoll.

“We are a revenue centre, so I had to convince the company that while there would be no revenue derived from this, there would certainly be some feel-good opportunities, not only for guests but also for the crew and local communities, and that it would build a stronger relationship with the destinations,” he says.

Second, Crystal’s programme targets much smaller, lesser-known local organisations. “We know the larger foundations are worthwhile and close to everyone’s heart, but what we’re really looking for are the worthwhile causes that relate to the destinations – we’re trying to link them together.”

Guest reactions and expectations for YCWC have been unique, Stoll says, although they play into an overarching trend towards greater interaction that extends across Crystal’s other land programmes. It is a development that is transforming the ‘tour’ (a word Stoll prefers to avoid) today’s cruise passengers are offered, as well as the very definition of luxury for the company.

“We offer a wide variety of programmes, because our guests today are more individual and private than they were 30 years ago; and they are looking for exclusive experiences, while the experiences in the luxury market today are very different.

“You don’t have to take people to the Four Seasons by Rolls-Royce and feed them a really expensive meal; you can take them to a beach in Mexico that needs to be cleaned, and they’ll roll up their sleeves and take any transportation. And they’ll see that as the same kind of worthwhile experience as the following day’s ‘flightseeing’ tour by aircraft.”

The right way

Choosing the right partners for each YCWC project relies upon a strict set of criteria, Stoll says, and while Crystal aims to offer a programme on every cruise (including the upcoming additions to its fleet), they will only do so providing that these criteria are fully met. While Stoll’s team is used to being the client in shoreside arrangements, here, the shoe is very firmly on the other foot – something he says he embraces.

“We’re not going to these potential partners and saying, ‘We want lunch at this time and in the afternoon we need to see this museum,’ but asking them, ‘This is a burns centre for children in Peru: what can we do?’”

Careful education on the part of the participant is also required. Stoll’s recollections of instances where guests have needed to be reminded to put cameras away may feed a view that voluntourism benefits the tourist more than recipient. But Stoll says his team takes care to be protective of each cause and only opens up the programme to the right guests.

“We don’t want four busloads of people,” he says. “We want a small group of people that have the right mindset and idea in their heart, and that want to contribute 150% of their mind, body and soul into the worthwhile project we present.”

Moreover, while the immediate impact of a day’s volunteering may appear limited in its scope, there is space for further contribution. Guests are not asked to make any donation, financial or otherwise, but YCWC has, in places, inspired follow-up action. Stoll cites a dentist who participated in YCWC at a Columbian orphanage and later returned with some of his students to volunteer their dentistry services.

Fostering peace

This ability for projects to inspire action in the longer term is something that cruise voluntourism veteran – and previous Nobel Peace Prize nominee – Yoshioka Tatsuya recognises as important. In 1983, still a student at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Yoshioka co-founded non-profit NGO Peace Boat. In the face of government censorship, the student-led group chartered a ship to visit neighbouring countries to discover the truth about Japan’s past military aggression, and build peace and understanding. Now operational for 33 years, Peace Boat’s mission remains peace and friendship, but also includes direct humanitarian action and – since 1992 – a growing focus on environmental sustainability.

Running three global cruises and one short Asia voyage most years, Peace Boat itineraries are built around the enthusiasm of local communities and NGOs in each destination, and the opportunity to educate guests. As Yoshioka reveals, however, more significant than the destinations visited is the sense of community created on board.

“A cruise is very different to travelling on land, because on the ship, we can create a community, and that means a completely different sense of mutual understanding, friendship and emotional ties,” Yoshioka says. “The character of the cruise connects this community, and that’s a very important element. The ship is like an actual village, because we spend three months on board.”

This communal spirit is further supported by Peace Boat’s focus on the role of individuals, with guests encouraged to run their own activities for the benefit of other passengers. Up to 30 programmes run on board each day, from language exchanges to fitness classes. Lectures by environmental experts are also on hand, and it is this plus a spirit of proactivity that Yoshioka believes helps foster long-term engagement. While the majority of people want to make the world a better place, he says, many lack the information required to take action. Peace Boat endeavours to provide this.

 “For me, the lecturers with experience on land in humanitarian activities are the most important, because they bring a strong passion and knowledge on board, and create that motivation to participate in such activities,” Yoshioka says. “Once people learn, they feel a change in themselves and a lot of people start to participate more. I’m not saying they all become NGO workers once they’re inducted, but let’s say that they might now spend 5% of their life on these kinds of activities. That makes a huge difference in the world.”

A stake in the future

Yoshioka expects a change in the wider cruise industry, too, in pursuit of tourists’ growing desires for action in and interaction with the places they visit.

“People are becoming bored with shallow touristic experiences,” he reflects. “They know more about other countries and cultures, so to go to the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower repeatedly – is it really a challenge for them? Human beings have very strong curiosity – particularly for other human beings – so they like to go deeper into the global community, into shared experience. That’s why I believe the future of cruise is this kind of programme.”

At the same time, he cautions that volunteer opportunities must not be used merely to promote ticket sales – something that guests would, at any rate, see through quickly. Instead, projects must start and finish with the communities concerned – whether that means addressing the enormous challenge of rising sea levels that faces many of the cruise industry’s favourite island ports-of-call, or simply ensuring that the arrival of cruise passengers does not consume but rather contributes to the resources of a town.

“We have to create a win-win situation,” Yoshioka says. “If the local people are happy because the cruise ship is coming, then the passengers will be happy because they see the smiles – the real smiles – of local people, and they’ll come again.”

Peace Boat’s latest project to design and build its Ecoship, a “restorative vessel” with a “net-positive effect on the environment”, embodies this drive towards a more responsible model of tourism. It is an ambition that can only aid the cruise industry as it embraces the opportunities presented by voluntourism.