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travel2change: “Experiences that make a positive difference”

We speak with Thomas Kohler, founder and head of travel2change

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Overtourism can have a huge impact on society and the environment of a destination. To learn more about how travel could inspire change, we asked Thomas Kohler, head and founder of travel2change.

TD: What was your background before travel2change? 

Thomas Kohler
Thomas Kohler

TK: I studied sports management and international management with a focus on strategic management and tourism in Austria. After completing my PhD, I worked on a recommendation system for a large travel company, Unique Experience.

My passion for windsurfing led to trips abroad that inspired the creation of travel2change. Besides travel2change, I’m an associate professor of marketing at Hawai‘i Pacific University and the founder of Innovation Days.

What is the idea behind the company?

The inspiration for travel2change came during a windsurfing trip to Mauritius. I noticed that the local community did not benefit from my travels, but was negatively affected by mass tourism development. I felt privileged to have all the means to do what I love, while the locals were only spectators to our sport.

“I was determined to find a way”

When I got back to Austria, I was determined to find a way that travel can mutually benefit the place being visited, as well as to the traveller who seeks to explore it. With this in mind, I ran a crowd-sourcing idea challenge. To incentivise participation, the best ideas were rewarded with trips to implement the projects. Between 2011 and 2013, we arranged 10 trips to 10 different countries, each with a unique solution that was implemented.

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How did you go about finding the right team members and investors?

Initially, a major European travel provider provided us with some seed funding to help kickstart our initiative. I looked for team members who shared the passion for travel and making a difference. We gradually brought more people on board so that we can increase our influence.

What challenges have you overcome and how did you go about it?

When we initially started travel2change, we soon realised that in order to be successful, we had to invest a huge amount of time and energy, particularly when organising all of the separate trips. Additionally, our funding did not allow many people to travel.

“The key to success is ensuring that the activities are easy to join”

With that in mind, in 2015, we decided to relaunch travel2change in Hawai‘i and focus on travellers who are already in the destination. We began by identifying local hosts conducting activities that combine fun and social or environmental impact.

Since 2015, we have learnt that the key to success is ensuring that the activities are easy to join, quick to pick up, and last only a half-day to a full-day but leave participants feeling their contributions have made a difference in the places they visited, by giving back to the local community, environment, and/or culture.

What are the best and worst aspects of the travel industry in your opinion?

Travel can open your mind, build bridges to commonality, reshape your perspectives, and foster understandings between nations and cultures towards greater awareness. Unfortunately, tourism can also lead to social and environmental challenges.

For travellers as newcomers to a destination, it is often difficult to find activities that have a positive impact on the destination.

What has changed the most during your time in the travel industry? 

Technology increasingly allows people to connect in new ways. Travellers are increasingly looking for authentic and unique experiences, rather than traditional tours.

“Curating experiences that make a positive difference”

In Hawaii, where visitors outnumber the local population by almost 10 to one, the local tourism authority has started incentivising ‘voluntourism” as a way to mitigate the negative effects of mass tourism. Since travel2change is a pioneer in this regard, we have been recognised by the tourism bureau and tour operators for curating experiences that make a positive difference.

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What trends do you think we will see in the next three years?

Travellers will continue towards peer-to-peer engagement to satisfy their thirst for compelling experiences. Local governments and tourism authorities will need to refocus on ways to cater to this trend in a responsible way. Opening channels that allow for a regulated shift in commerce, away from large corporate tour operators, while also ensuring sustainability to protect the local infrastructure and environment.

For anyone looking to follow a similar career path to yours, what advice would you give them? What should they include in any job application?

For me, the combination of academic study and practical experience in an area that I’m passionate about worked well. I’d encourage young talent to be curious about technology and sustainability as it will drive travel in the future. Relevant digital skills combined with a passion for travelling are also key in today’s travel industry.