When the Crystal Symphony docked in Odessa, Ukraine, passengers eagerly headed out to explore the city. Dubbed the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” and a former summer retreat of the czars, Odessa is home to lavish opera houses, opulent ballet theaters, ornate Preobrazhesky Cathedral, and the historic Potemkin Steps. There were private car tours with English-speaking guides, motor coach tours, guided walking excursions, museum visits, tickets to a musical performance at the beautifully-restored Opera House, and jaunts into the picturesque countryside.
But one small group of passengers did something entirely different. They headed to a ramshackle string of buildings in the center of town to volunteer at a social services center run by The Way Home, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the homeless. The shelter, the first of its kind in Ukraine, was full of kids, once living in sewers, cellars, and abandoned tenement buildings. The center provides shelter, schooling, medical and emotional care, and legal services.
The passengers received an enthusiastic welcome and for several hours they learned about street life in Odessa, played with the children, and watched a dance performance. Back on the ship they shared their experience. “I don’t think I would have received such a deep understanding of Odessa, or connected as much with the local community, from any other tour,” said one guest.
The excursion was part of Crystal Cruises’ unique You Care-We Care program.
“Our guests are very philanthropic,” says Mimi Weisband, vice president of public relations for Crystal Cruises, “but we wanted to offer something more than an opportunity to simply donate money to local causes.
“We wanted to help the regions where we travel, but the idea was to also get the guests involved, to have them develop a more intimate connection with the destination,” Weisband says.
The program, launched in 2011, has become tremendously popular; nearly all the volunteer shore excursions have been fully booked, and many had waiting lists. Company officials expect interest to continue to grow this year.
Philanthropy in the cruise industry is nothing new. Several cruise lines have aligned themselves with causes, and donate a certain percentage of proceeds to charities. For example, Celebrity Cruises has an ongoing partnership with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, offering several on-board programs designed to raise awareness of the disease. Disney Cruise Line invites guests to volunteer onboard the ship, with its Disney VoluntEARS program. Past activities have included a Walk for Wildlife to help raise money for the Jane Goodall Institute, and the Paint Fest at Sea, when guests and crew members gave time to paint a Disney character mural to donate to the children’s area of the Vall d’Hebron hospital in Barcelona. The Abercrombie and Kent expedition cruise line sponsors fund-raising activities aboard each of its Antarctic cruises to help Save the Albatross. The line also offers its once-a-year Climate Change journey to Antarctica, donating and delivering scientific equipment used for climate change research.
However, Crystal Cruises’ hands-on, locally-focused shore “voluntourism’’ program remains unique in the industry. So far, cruisers have fed feral donkeys on Antigua; planted trees in New Zealand; looked after rescued sea turtles in Athens; helped to rebuild a salmon hatchery in Alaska; visited underprivileged children in Uruguay, Fiji, and South Africa; supported conservation efforts in Oregon; and distributed food and supplies in Israel, Estonia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Boston, and Santa Barbara, Calif., among other activities.
“At first, our tour operators and others were concerned that we’d be taking guests, who are used to some very luxurious experiences, to places where they may not be comfortable,” says Weisband. “So far, this hasn’t been a problem.”
The excursions are kept small, limited to groups of about 10 or 12 or smaller, and carefully described as no-frills activities.
There are other challenges. Guests want hands-on experiences, and those are often the most challenging to arrange. Most nonprofits don’t always have time and energy to set up a separate program or teach volunteers. Bringing in strangers can sometimes be difficult.
Picking the right cause is also important. Local nonprofits must be noncontroversial with a good standing in the community, and logistically close to where the ships dock. Crystal’s program developers also want to offer a variety of excursions. “We need diverse experiences,” says Weisband. “We don’t want them all to be working with children, or all to be helping animals, or the environment. We need variety for a global audience and three generations.”
Today, there are nearly 20 volunteer excursions; the company strives, when possible, to offer at least one on every Crystal cruise. This year, You Care-We Care excursions will continue to expand with new programs in new markets. These excursions may not be as luxurious as other on-shore offerings, but they often prove to be the most rewarding.
“More often than not, when people return to the ship and share their experiences, it’s the stories about the volunteer excursions that leave others spellbound,” says Weisband.
Crystal Cruises 888-722-0021, www.crystalcruises.com