July 10, 2021

Travel Changemakers: Matt Leedham, founder, Travel to change the world

Words by Travel to change the world
Travel Changemakers
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 contribute to build a positive travel legacy for ourselves and the world.

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 in Northern New South Wales home where he lives with his family.

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?

Growing up in North Yorkshire, as a boy I dreamt of visiting 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 big piece of it.

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

I loved art and design, and after school, I was accepted into art school in London, graduating with a degree as a graphic designer, and then working my way up to become a creative director in the cut-throat world of advertising.

Over time though, I gradually grew disheartened in making brands that I didn’t really believe in (or worse that I ethically struggled with), look good and prosper.

Bangkok, Thailand

So in 1999, I threw in the advertising agency towel, packed a backpack and left England to travel through Asia while discovering a newfound love for travel writing and photography.

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

After travelling around Australia, I arrived in Brisbane 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.

Overtourism in 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 that 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 with greed, corruption, the degradation of historic sites or fragile environments and species rampant.

It seems to me that tourism’s current ‘business model’ is clearly not paying back; instead, it’s turned into a take, take, take scenario that serves only a few.

The challenges are complex for each country. I firmly believe that responsibility falls in the first instance on respective governments who must drive new policies and implement reparations for those who only want to take.

But I also think we all have a huge role to play in helping drive change.

What if we capitalise on the current zeitgeist of environmentalism and blend it with travel?

What if it became on-trend for travellers to be mindful of the consequences of their behaviour and travel choices wherever they roamed?

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 purely about experiencing different places and connecting with cultures outside of and including your own, travel can be the transformative power that turns everyday people into advocates of change.

Any dinner party conversation will often turn to travel. If Joan from next door tells your dinner party that she refused to ride on an elephant, and why, you’ll all sit up and listen.

Similarly, when an Australian shares that they have just learnt about their indigenous Country and the plight of the local biodiversity after going on a ranger-led walking tour, that’s powerful.

Advocacy starts this micro.

For me, that’s so exciting because it’s actually very easy – you break it down into just sharing one story at a time.

So the next person you meet will always be your opportunity to help make a change because, over time, the seemingly smallest things can have the biggest impact.

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, so I think there’s positive change 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. Travel to change the world aims to showcase what people 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 had 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 the idea to create 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 worldwide are now getting increased exposure thanks to social media, 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?”

Discovering the Louvre with family in Abu Dhabi

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

Dive deeply into your research online and sketch out your trip with the experiences you’d like to have.

It can be challenging to create an entire trip sustainably, so seek out the things going on in the places you’re headed that resonate with you personally.

What could transform your mindset through travel? What minimises my footprint the most but maximises my impact?

You’ll want to impart your knowledge to others, believe me, because caring has thankfully become ‘cool’ again. Isn’t that refreshing?

Once you’re on your travels, I think that ultimately, responsible travel is common sense.

Treat the people, communities 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 newfound knowledge. Share this link with a friend 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.