Explore March 15, 2018

Cruising With Purpose

Boisean Tara Russell leads an effort in social-impact travel

“Leadership is a willingness to live with eyes focused on a future that doesn’t yet exist and that you want to lead people into,” said Tara Russell, a Boise local. Russell has done just that with the cruise industry. She radically reimagined the potential of cruises and travel, in general, to transform lives. Russell pioneered the first social impact travel brand, Fathom Travel.

Fathom Travel launched in 2016 as Carnival Corporation’s 10th and newest brand in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. It has since blossomed into an international movement of “Love in Action.”

Based on the importance of deep human connection, Fathom, according to Russell, “helps travelers unleash their potential and strengthen global communities.” Onboard, the cruise’s programming is creative and customized, providing travelers with meaningful opportunities to dream about their own futures, to brainstorm ways to more fully engage with local and global communities, and to learn about the places they visit. Onshore, Fathom has worked with community partners to create “Impact Activities” that bring travelers into the heart of their destinations to support the dreams and goals of local initiatives and organizations. This is an integral pillar of Fathom’s Impact Travel mission.

Impact Travel maintains the creed that we should not only visit a place but also, as Russell put it, “learn to participate and immerse in experiences that further the local hopes and dreams of the community. It is about giving, playing, and growing while participating in a global travel experience and community.” Russell will be the first to remind an eager traveler that “we must be patient enough to listen. If we listen, we can figure out the right way to explore shared values.”

In Fathom’s first year visiting Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, travelers worked with local community members to plant 19,075 trees and produce 22,604 sheets of recycled paper. They also made enough water filters to provide 7,996 people with clean drinking water, 108 concrete floors that benefited 569 people, and taught 35,308 hours of English to school children. This is Fathom Travel in action.

While Fathom originally launched as one ship, the Adonia, between Cuba and the Dominican Republic, it recently expanded to include other locations and has partnered with sister brands like Holland America and Princess Cruises to bring Fathom’s “travel with a purpose” experiences to a larger audience. Travelers can now travel to Jamaica to swim, play, and collaborate with local residents at The Rastafari Encounter and A Taste of Jamaica From Farm to Table.

Working in the gardens of Jamaica

Fathom travelers participate in a gardening project in Jamaica. Photo by Cook Creative / Courtesy Fathom Travel

In the Dominican Republic, travelers immerse themselves in the local communities through Hands On Dominican Chocolate, Artisanal Soap Experience, Dominican Mountain Coffee Adventure, and Island Art, Jewelry, and Craft Workshop. And this past January, Fathom and Princess Cruises launched “Cruise for the Caribbean,” voyages to provide relief efforts in places like St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and the Dominican Republic. But this is just the start. The possibilities for traveler and community empowerment in the Caribbean and across the globe are limitless as Fathom actively builds community solutions that will be incorporated into this new age of travel.

And who is this Russell who led the travel industry into a new future? She is a warm-hearted and big-thinking dreamer and builder who makes the impossible possible and who follows her heart and vision against all odds. She admits that leadership isn’t easy: “It’s terrifying and scary, but it’s still the path I pick every day. I choose to focus on what’s possible if and when. Life is short, so why not go for it? I want every day to matter.”

While Russell is relatively new to the cruise industry world, she is not new to creating concepts and building on them. She is an engineer by training and has worked in diverse consumer product arenas with Fortune 500 companies such as General Motors (GM), Intel, and Nike where she has lived the full product life cycle, from design and development to sales and manufacturing. She studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and subsequently worked for Saturn and GM China. In particular, working for GM China was a transformative experience. While helping to build GM’s first startup operation in Shanghai, Russell saw abject poverty nearby. The experience affirmed for her that she “was to live down the middle and build businesses that radically transformed people’s lives for the better.” Since then, Russell has co-founded three global social enterprises: Jitasa, Nightlight, and World Economic Forum Global Shapers Idaho. She also founded the food production social enterprise Create Common Good in Boise.


Russell and her husband, Jeff, chose Boise as their home base from an “access, affordability, and livability standpoint.” They love the mountains, being active, building businesses, and raising their two children, and they can make it all happen in Boise. With Boise’s friendly atmosphere for social enterprises and its status as one of the fastest growing states in the country, Russell felt it was a dynamic place from which to lead her regional and global crusades.

Ultimately, Fathom’s goal is to “reengineer hope,” Russell said. By “positively disrupting” the cruise industry and “the broader cultural narrative of confusion, fear, and sadness,” Fathom’s role moving forward is to instill “resilience in both Carnival Corporation and its partner communities through creative and reimagined initiatives, and to inspire a too divided world for a more united humanity,” she said. Fathom’s success as an innovative start-up is proof that the world is eager for authentic connections and interaction among cultures. It also reminds us that travel is a gift; it forces us to reach beyond our daily lives to appreciate our shared humanity.

This article appears in the Issue of Territory Magazine.