Africa Travel Week

Uthando South Africa Transforms Travel into Help and Connection Winning Award for Making a Difference

James Fernie, Founder of Uthando South Africa, shares how his organisation, a gold awardee at the 2023 WTM Global Responsible Tourism Awards in the ‘Best For Meaningful Connections’ category, is revolutionising philanthropic travel. Uthando—meaning ‘love’ in isiZulu—turns traditional township tours into authentic experiences that uplift communities and forge deep connections between tourists and local activists.

Q: What do you think resonated with the judges about your entry?

A: Uthando’s work comes from such a heartfelt, sincere place. It’s a deep, sincere intention around sharing our common humanity, finding the best in people, and spreading joy, irrespective of who they are or where they are from. And the interactions we facilitate are full of joy, full of sincerity, full of heart, and that is what resonates with people. They feel the authenticity. They feel inspired and moved by South Africans working hard despite so many challenges, yet they smile; they have energy. 

Q: What are Uthando’s goals? 

A: TUthando’s main focus is to raise money through the tourism industry to support a broad range of community development projects engaged in poverty alleviation, skills development, and community building. The primary objective is to significantly assist community development projects and activists using the tourism industry’s resources.

Q: How does it work?

A: The way in which we introduce these community projects to the world is through running philanthropic educational excursions. That is our mechanism for telling the stories of these community projects. But it is more than just that, because we are incredibly proud of the people running these organisations. And very often, those efforts are unrecognised and unrewarded. And we come along, and we say, “We recognise you. We see you. We’re proud of you. And how can we help?”  If somebody who’s been on one of our tours wants to assist and wants to support our work, we have a mechanism in place where they can donate and then receive a tax deduction.

Q: Can you give us an example? 

We are working with such a broad range of community development projects. As a result of the generosity and kindness of tour operators and individual travellers, we have managed to finance the construction of six world-class early childhood development centres—beautiful buildings in which quality education with a proper curriculum for early development is being implemented.

We’re extremely proud of the remarkable principals who are running those schools. These children live in informal shacks, and to see them every year with the graduation caps and their beautiful little hats and black gowns, preparing them with a good foundation for primary school – it’s amazing.  

Q: How can travellers ensure their visit is authentic and meaningful?

A: My advice to tourism organisations or companies that want to participate in so-called township tourism or responsible tourism is to join Fair Trade Tourism. Learn about the principles of fair trade and engage with local people running organisations at the grassroots level. It should never be a case of people coming in with their own ideas and forcing them onto local people.

I think authenticity relates to respect for the locals, respecting dignity and privacy, and really looking at ways in which tourism can benefit at the end of the day. It must contribute to community development. Much thought must be given to properly instituting a code of ethics and conduct on how visitors interact with locals. 

Q: What about these philanthropic tourism excursions make for a unique experience for travellers?

A: It’s that spirit of connecting people through joy and a deep and sincere desire to help that inspires people to want to give.

Q: Why are awards for tourism role players important?

A: They shine a light on the work being done and generate more awareness, which helps us get results. Awards have a general kind of goodwill attached to them.

Q: What’s next for Uthando?

A: We are working on a new project, The Heart of Cape Town. Zimbabwean artists are crafting wooden hearts with beautiful lights. We will be selling them but also using them in activations. Our goal is to send love out into the world. I have much bigger visions, but who doesn’t love a beautiful heart?

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.