Africa Travel Week
James Fernie

James Fernie: Responsible tourism trailblazer uplifts South African communities

What does responsible travel look like? For James Fernie, founder of Uthando South Africa, it’s about using ethical tourism to uplift communities. This driving vision has earned Fernie recognition as a Hero of the Decade at the 10-year anniversary Africa Travel Week celebrations. 

As the founder of Uthando South Africa, James Fernie understands the power of love. For 15+ years, he’s uplifted disadvantaged groups by cultivating profound human connections – bringing together tourists and grassroots activists to discover shared hopes and humanity across privilege divides.

The idea was planted in 2006 when Fernie visited the Jikeleza Dance Project in Hout Bay. Watching underprivileged kids find joy through ballet; he recognised the potential for tourists, companies, and communities to benefit mutually from exchanges like these. 

At the time, Fernie worked in tourism marketing. On a US/Europe trip, he pitched the idea to clients.

“Everyone loved it. And the more I learned about community development, the more excited I became to showcase these projects through tourism,” he recalls.

Uthando (which means ‘love’ in isiZulu) emerged in 2008 through a timely spark between Fernie and the Multi-Agency Grants Initiative. Their startup grant came with a request: showcase community projects in their orbit, starting with Mama Gloria Bebeza’s childhood centre in Khayelitsha. Visiting the Khumbulani Centre, Fernie found inspiration in Mama Gloria leading HIV outreach, gardens, and more. He realised that meeting grassroots warriors could expand Uthando’s influence. 

So, when European parliamentarians requested a township tour, the Grants Initiative turned to a willing Fernie. Relying on a map and passion to navigate this uncharted territory, he stepped up to guide Uthando’s pioneering first plilanthropic cultural excursion. Reflecting, he admits he hadn’t a clue but was powered by heart. And with a single step, Uthando’s journey connecting communities began.

Responsible tourism through an ethical lens

Fernie recalls how it grew from there: “Many organisations had experienced unfulfilled promises in the past. But they were also excited by the enormous potential benefits to develop their programmes.”

What did it take to get them on board? “A leap of faith,” plus engaging role players to shape culturally respectful tours. He also credits the work of colleague Xolani Maseko, who has been an integral part of the Uthando vision. Over time, with community input, Uthando instituted ethical guidelines like a Code of Conduct. They also obtained Fair Trade accreditation. These ensure all interactions are based on “authenticity”, Fernie says.

As a non-profit, Uthando’s mission is to combat poverty, develop skills, and build connections by raising funds through tourism to assist community projects across South Africa. Their primary goal is to assist grassroots organisations and activists via ethical tourism partnerships. Uthando introduces visitors to them through philanthropic educational excursions. Tourists gain insight into social issues while leaders receive validation and resources to amplify their efforts.

If moved to help post-tour, visitors have reliable donation mechanisms, with tax deductions available in major markets. Whether working with tour operators, hotels, or associations, Uthando facilitates mutually enriching connections where tourism revenue directly empowers disadvantaged groups.

The ripple effects of transformative travel

At its core, Uthando operates from a spirit of recognition and compassion – seeing overlooked heroes, honouring their work, and asking, “How can we help?”. This ethos of leveraging travel for good is key to their philanthropic model.

Their tours shine a light on diverse changemakers, like the young urban farmers at “Feed the Culture” in Athlone, who received vital tourist donations. Hotels also invest in Uthando’s responsible initiatives and partners. Ultimately, Fernie sees mindful, uplifting travel as a powerful force for good.

The non-profit has raised millions for over 100 South African community organisations, financing six educational facilities to equip disadvantaged youth.

“Watching the graduates in caps and gowns is profoundly moving for tourists and a source of great pride for communities”, Fernie says. 

Fernie welcomes the growing consumer demand for authentic, ethical experiences. He says platforms like WTM Africa’s Sustainability Village, where Uthando exhibited in 2023, are vital for expanding models like theirs. Uthando’s eye-catching tyre display garnered interest, opening promising partnerships to further their mission. 

Tips for travel companies to walk the talk

Fernie’s advice for interested tourism companies?

“First, learn fair trade principles and ethical best practices. Engage with and amplify existing grassroots innovations rather than imposing outside agendas. Next, design exchanges that tangibly benefit local communities – financially and beyond – while respecting dignity and values. Establish strict codes of conduct for visitor interactions. Companies have both an opportunity and responsibility to drive sustainable development rather than shallow extraction.” 

Travel isn’t just about seeing new places; it’s about lifting each other up and changing lives. Just look at what Uthando has done—a sprinkle of love can travel miles.

Fernie is buzzing with ideas for what’s next, dreaming of sparking an even bigger social change:

“I would love for tourism companies to mix it up. Instead of the usual Christmas party, why not adopt a community project? Imagine taking locals up Table Mountain. Most people in Cape Town haven’t seen the view from up there or set foot on Robben Island or Cape Point. We’ve got to widen our lens; it’s about a new consciousness. Sharing, caring, and thinking big—if we’re going to make it, it’s got to be a team effort,” he says.

Africa Travel Week

Africa Travel Week (ATW) focuses on inbound and outbound markets for general leisure tourism, luxury travel, LGBTQ+ travel and the MICE/business travel sector as well as travel technology. Shows include: ILTM Africa, WTM Africa, EQUAL Africa, ibtm AFRICA, Travel Forward, Sports & Events Tourism Exchange and African Tourism Investment Summit.