July 10, 2019

TRAVEL CHANGEMAKERS: Matt Leedham, Founder, Travel to change the world

Words by Travel to change the world
Matt Leedham at Wadi Rum, Jordan

Matt Leedham, Founder of ‘Travel to change the world’ and shares his thoughts and ideas on how we can all do our bit to build a positive travel legacy.

Born in York, England, over the last twenty-plus years, Matt has lived and worked in travel in the UK, New Zealand, Argentina and Brazil before settling in Australia. These days he calls Byron Bay home.

We asked Matt to share his thoughts on why he believes travel can change the world.

Fez, Morocco

What was it that inspired you to join the travel industry?

As a child, I dreamed of other countries (mainly those with sunshine). It may have been an escape from tricky family life but also, there was magic out there and I wanted a piece of it.

My grandfather, a Desert rat in World War II, entranced me with tales of his exploits in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. I was hooked.

I loved art and design and after school, was accepted into art school in London, graduating with a degree as a graphic designer. I then worked my way up to become a creative director in the cut-throat world of advertising but gradually grew disheartened in making brands that I didn’t care about (or worse that I ethically struggled with), look good.

Bangkok, Thailand

So in 1999 I threw in the designer towel and left England with a girlfriend to travel through Asia while discovering a newfound love for creative writing and photography.

Travel changed me from the inside out. It opened my eyes to different cultures and humanity – we are all essentially the same, aren’t we?

After travelling around Australia, I arrived in Brisbane, skint and got a gig at Flight Centre, working in the head office’s internal advertising agency, ‘Artworks’. I couldn’t believe my love of design and travel could exist in one job.

My journey working in travel since has been nothing short of incredible. I couldn’t be more grateful to all the people I’ve met along the way and the transformative experiences this industry has gifted me.

Venice, Italy

What concerns you about the long term impact of travel on people and the planet?

Governments, tourism boards and travel companies have historically spent decades promoting destinations and forging economies which have built many tourism-dependent countries. But traditional tourism, as we’ve always known it, isn’t sustainable anymore.

It’s cracking at the seams as greed, corruption and the degradation of historic sites or the destruction of fragile environments and species is rampant. Tourism’s current ‘business model’ is clearly not paying back; it’s a take, take, take scenario and one that serves only a few.

The challenges are complex for each country and it does fall on the respective governments in the first instance who must become responsible themselves in order to drive new policies and implement punishments for the planet’s ‘takers’.

But I think we can all help drive change. What if we capitalise on the current zeitgeist of environmentalism and blend this into the travel industry? What if it became on-trend for travellers to be mindful of the consequences of their behaviour and travel choices?

Nizwa, Oman

Do you think travel can change the world?

Anything that promises to ‘change the world’ is likely to come under some deserved scrutiny as it’s a huge call to make and is a potentially paralysing thought for most of us.

“Where do you even begin with trying to change the world? The easy option is to do nothing and hope that someone else does something.”

But if you consider that travel is simply about experiencing different places and connecting with cultures outside of your own, travel can be the transformative power that turns everyday people into advocates of change.

Travel is the biggest industry in the world. Fact. Any dinner party or a BBQ conversation will often turn to travel. If Bob from next door tells your dinner party he refused to ride on an elephant, and why, you’ll all sit up and listen. It can start this small.

For me, that’s so exciting because it’s actually very easy – you simply break it down into just sharing one story at a time. The next person you meet anywhere will always be your next opportunity to help make a change.

The smallest things can have the biggest impact over time.

Women at Soneva, Maldives
The women at Soneva, Maldives

Are you seeing positive change happening in responsible and sustainable travel?

Right now, the travel industry is under more scrutiny than ever. The developed world knows how much travel impacts the entire world which creates many ethical dilemmas.

“Should you go to theme parks with animals? What about riding elephants? Is it ok to take photos of other people’s kids in Asia? How do I know if an orphanage is legitimate?”

It’s all about education and so I do think there’s positive change happening everywhere, once you switch onto it. Sadly, still, so many remarkable initiatives don’t get the media airtime they deserve.

We want to change that. TTCTW aims in part to let others know what other people, people like you and me, are doing for travel that is positive, inspirational and change-making.

Hurtigruten's leading the way with battery powered ships
Hurtigruten’s leading the way with battery powered hybrid ships

We’d been running sustainable and responsible travel stories on for three years and were seeing a growing appetite for more but felt that so many stories were still being missed along the way. From this, came Travel to change the world.

On a macro level, I saw that every segment of large-scale commercial travel, be it aviation, cruising, tour companies or hotel groups, are all being forced to change their ways to evolve sustainably – and it’s all because of what today’s travelling consumer is demanding.

On a micro level, smaller businesses and initiatives all over the world are now getting increased exposure thanks to digital media and technology which helps them connect to the bigger market; the result is that many are creating responsible travel easily accessible for more travellers to be able to book.

The rate of positive change is extraordinary. It feels like only five minutes ago that we were celebrating ditching plastic straws yet already, anyone talking about only ditching straws now gets the response “is that it?”

The Louvre, Abu Dhabi

What advice would you give to people wanting to travel more responsibly?

Sketch out your trip and dive deeply into your research. Seek out the really sustainable and different stuff going on in the places you’re headed. It’ll change your experience but always for the better.

It’s as simple as telling people to travel and tread carefully, hold an open mind and become a positive ambassador back at home. You’ll want to impart your knowledge to others, believe me, because caring has thankfully become ‘cool’ again. Isn’t that refreshing?

Ultimately responsible travel is common sense.

Treat the people and places along the way with the same respect you’d expect if you were at home.

How can you travel to change the world?

Congratulations! By reading this post and taking some of these insights on board, you’ve already made a difference.

Now you can easily create your own impact by sharing your new-found knowledge. Share this link to a friend who you think would be interested or post it on your own social media.

Ultimately, it all comes down to staying curious, keeping yourself up-to-date and making yourself accountable for your actions on your travels.