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Cruise Ship Volunteer Tourism and Millennials

Recently I read two different news articles from separate news outlets touting the newest and greatest trends in volunteering. As a Volunteer Program Coordinator for World Renew, I am always interested in new trends. As I read the article my heart sank as I realized that the cruise ship line industry has begun to promote volunteerism cruises in order to attract millennials, a younger customer base who have a bent for social justice causes. The author of one of pieces said that marketing cruises as a way to volunteer—rather than as relaxing vacations or sightseeing trips—could help to tackle two problems that plague the cruise industry. First, most cruise lines have repeat customers but they have not successfully been able to market to those who have never given cruising a shot. Secondly, the average age of cruise passengers is 49 and the industry needs younger passengers (The Associated Press – Beth J. Harpaz).

It is through volunteerism that the cruise lines hope to tackle both of these issues by offering one-shot volunteer excursions on port calls as an alternative to sightseeing. Both articles indicated that the cruise lines will use sustainable methods, work with the local community, and provide thorough orientation and training. However, as I read on, it was clear what they were really promising is a “feel good” approach to volunteering rather than an emphasis on sustainable development in true partnership with the local communities where they plan to visit. 

One of the first cruises is set for April 2016 to the Dominican Republic and is able to accommodate 710 passengers. The article mentioned that passengers could visit an orphanage (and possibly bring donations as long as they checked with local authorities), teach, build water filters, or help to cultivate cacao plants, and were available for the short excursion to shore.

As I thought about number quoted in the article (710 passengers), I began to think about the negative impact this could have on the local communities and their families. Imagine for a moment how it might feel to be a community member in the Dominican Republic. What would it be like to suddenly see hundreds of tourists swarming your local neighborhood? What about the children in the orphanages? How will they feel about hundreds of passengers invading their home for afternoon?  How will the cruise line ensure that none of these vulnerable children will be exploited through pictures posted online on somebody’s Facebook wall? How can the promise of regular trips equal sustainable development? How are they working with local communities to ensure that the activities are indeed community driven? How does the practice of passengers bringing backpacks full of stuff empower local communities? Will the lure of rich North Americans with money take away from the way community leaders creatively meet the needs of their own communities?

Millennials have been called the “Me Generation” by too many articles that characterize them as lazy, narcissistic, and having a need for instant gratification. Has the cruise line industry tapped into a new niche market or missed the boat entirely – pun intended? Perhaps? Or could it be that they have not given enough credit to the very group to which they are marketing? This generation of young adults is educated, open minded, transparent, and truly want to make a positive impact. They care about social justice causes and sustainable development and want to ensure that they are making a difference. Many are experienced travelers. They care about how their global experiences impact local experiences in their context and that is inspiring. 

World Renew has been working hard to address these questions with young adults with who are placed as volunteers. Each and every volunteer with World Renew is equipped to understand our work with our local partner organizations and with the communities we serve. We approach our partnerships in ways that promote sustainable development which is empowered through local leadership.

The World Renew Global Volunteer Program is part of a “Think Tank” which meets regularly to discuss and evaluate each other on the 7 Standards of Excellence in Missions ( As a group of practitioners in Missions and Volunteering we are committed to equipping leaders to work according to best practices and to ensure “Do No Harm” as part of our programming. We also recommend and provide resources, reading material, and curriculum materials for mission leaders.

Here are the some books /curriculum that I would recommend to anyone hoping to volunteer in global missions this year and make a difference in their local community:


Walking with the Poor – B. Meyers

When Helping Hurts – B. Fikkert & S. Corbett

Serving With Eyes Wide Open – D. Livermore

Foreign to Familiar – S. Lanier

Toxic Charity – R. Lupton

Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life – Rethinking Ministry to the Poor – R. Lupton

Friendship at the Margins – Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission – C. Heuertz & C.Pohl

A Place at the Table – 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor – C. Seay


Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions – B. Fikkert & S. Corbett 

When Helping Hurts, The Small Group Experience – B. Fikkert & S. Corbett

[Image: Flickr user cormac70]


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