How to Make (and Keep) a Traveler’s Hippocratic Oath

Tours you can take, although we'll pass

Tours you can take, although we’ll pass

First, do no harm.

It’s an oath sworn by physicians and a pledge that every traveler should make as well. As guests in the places we visit the very least we can do is respect our hosts by not hurting their country or their people.

Unfortunately such pledges are easier made than kept. That’s especially true in areas of the world that lack strong regulations protecting vulnerable populations. It’s not uncommon to see plenty of exploitive activities marketed to tourists. And sometimes those activities are even cleverly disguised to prey on our very desire to do good.

Visiting and volunteering in a children’s orphanage in Cambodia, for example, sounds like a good way of directing your travel dollars to a worthwhile cause. That is until you learn about the fake orphanages that separate children from their parents for the sole purpose of separating tourists from their money.

So how do you travel ethically when unscrupulous tour operators do every thing they can to hide the truth of their operations? Here are some suggestions.

First, pledge to do no harm

The first step toward traveling ethically is recognizing that the responsibility falls on us as travelers. Too few of us do. Oftentimes travelers assume that if an activity is offered it must be okay; that surely some regulator or authority has vetted it and is monitoring things to curb abuse. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Many places lack strong regulations or effective oversight. Some are rife with corruption while others are plagued by indifference. In those cases it is up to the travel community to impose its own regulation on the industry by supporting ethically run operations and withholding its travel dollars from those that fall short.

But doing so requires us to first recognize that we play a role in determining whether abusive practices continue. Only then can we play our part in assuring that they don’t.

Question your motives

Each of us is devilishly creative when it comes to convincing ourselves that it’s okay to do the things we want to do anyway. Behavioral scientists call it “motivated reasoning,” and we’re all guilty of it to some degree. It happens when you let your conclusion drive your analysis instead of the other way around.

You’ll see that process unfold again and again in the comments section of our post about Why we won’t travel to North Korea. The most damning arguments we raised in that article were ones we haven’t seen published anywhere else. And yet not a single critic of ours attempted to engage with those arguments. Mostly they had already decided that travel was good, and they didn’t worry themselves about things that might conflict with their preconceived notions.

That’s motivated reasoning in action. And it’s something we all have to guard against.

The problem is we don’t usually know that we’re doing it. We think we’re analyzing a situation when what we’re really doing is looking for evidence that supports our conclusions. The only way to fight against that is to be aware of our tendency toward motivated reasoning and deliberately work against it by seeking out conflicting views and possibly even defer to them in instances where the chance of causing harm is great.  

Follow the money

Money is indeed the root of all evil. And like every other profession on the planet, an unregulated tourist industry will do unsavory things if it means garnering more of that filthy lucre for itself. And when there is money at stake, you can’t expect your tour operator to tell you anything other than exactly what you want to hear.

If he knows you’re concerned about child labor, he’ll tell you the children you see are on break from school and are “just playing” at picking coffee with their parents. If you’re concerned about animal mistreatment or ecological destruction, he’ll give you every assurance that none of those things are happening.

Kayan Woman

The way to see through these kinds of lies is to consider the incentives your tourist dollars create. If you’re paying to see kids in an orphanage, you’ve created a profit motive for someone to stock up on sad looking children separated from their families. If you’re paying for a selfie with a tiger, you’ve just made it worthwhile for someone to breed wild animals in captivity and either beat or drug them until they’re submissive enough to pose for you. If you’re paying to photograph communities of Kayan (or long-neck) women in Thailand, you’re contributing to a business whose sole product is disfigured women. Keeping that business going over the long-term requires inducing (or forcing) young girls into similar disfigurement.

Decide that living creatures are not tourist attractions

It’s not always easy to untangle the economic impacts of tourism. And you’re sure to encounter competing claims of offsetting benefits. The most common is that tourism revenue helps local communities, and in some cases it does. That’s especially true when you’re traveling independently and patronizing family owned businesses. But how much money filters down to local communities from more organized tours is simply not possible for travelers to know.

In such cases it’s clarifying to resort to first principals. People are not tourist attractions. Any activity that puts people on display like zoo animals is very likely exploitive.

Hey look, a dangerous animal. And an alligator, too.

Hey look, a dangerous animal. And an alligator, too.

The same actually goes for animals as well. Caging, breeding, and breaking animals for human entertainment is not something we personally choose to support, especially since there are so many ethical alternatives available. But mostly because seeing animals in the wild is far more rewarding than seeing them in captivity. Once you watch orcas swimming in the ocean, the idea of visiting a place like Sea World just makes you feel sad.

Keep your travel and charity separate

We’ve seen so many instances where travelers’ good intentions are twisted by conmen that we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s often (although certainly not always) better to keep travel and charity separate. Instead of giving to child beggars, we give to organizations like Heifer International. Instead of visiting places like North Korea, we give to the International Rescue Committee.

We try to find and support reputable aid organizations serving the countries we visit while mostly avoiding tourist attractions that purport to also be charities.

Research your options

The above recommendations, especially the last one, could end up steering you away from small local organizations that actually do good work. That would be tragic. To reduce that risk these suggestions should be read as a list of guidelines rather than a set of absolute rules.

Use your intuition to sniff out bad actors. If something looks like it uses people or animals as a means rather than treating them as an end, it’s probably not an organization you want to support. In cases where that isn’t clear, a quick internet search about the organization usually turns up any complaints people have. If the complaints seem legitimate, then maybe the best choice is to skip the activity and give that tour money to a relevant charity instead.

Tags: , , ,

88 Comments on “How to Make (and Keep) a Traveler’s Hippocratic Oath”

  1. nigemate November 28, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Excellent post. You express your approach so clearly, thanks. It saves me having to! One thing I might add to your comment in family run tourism actiities. Also try to find out community run activities. They may be informal run by the local communit or more formalized as a part of a structured Programme to to build sustaianable businesses in communities that would otherwise have no means of generating incomes or, worse, be exploited by third parties. Namiba’s conservancies are a good example. Community organizations with elected management committees, run to achieve twin goals of conservation and sustainable development. And they have some of the best campsites!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian November 29, 2014 at 3:20 am #

      There are lots of good organizations like that. We’ve been dining at a few. One in Thailand (Freebird Cafe) that donates all profits to Burmese refugees and one in Luang Prabang that trains and employs underprivileged locals in the kitchen and the dining room.

      The nice thing about organizations like this is that we don’t have to really vet them too hard. The worst thing that happens if they’re bogus is that we overpay for a meal.

      Liked by 3 people

    • ranita1403 December 21, 2014 at 11:08 am #

      I love you it too much


  2. digger666 November 28, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666.


  3. Shikha Kothari November 28, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    An eye-opening read for me!


    • Brian November 29, 2014 at 3:13 am #

      We endeavor to be helpful. Sometimes we even succeed. 🙂


  4. Emily November 28, 2014 at 9:59 pm #

    Excellent post! I’ve shared on Twitter and Facebook. As travelers and tourists, we should all strive to make choices that reflect our values, and “do no harm” is an important one for many of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian November 29, 2014 at 3:12 am #

      Thanks for sharing. 🙂


  5. intentionalmc November 28, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

    I really appreciate this post. We too try to be responsible when we travel, hence our name “Intentional Travelers.” Having lived two years as Peace Corps Volunteers in a country dependent on tourism, we have seen many downsides of travel. But there are certainly ways to do no harm if you’re willing to put some intentional effort into your planning.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Kelly Guymon Photography November 29, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Take only memories and photographs, land leave it better than you found it.


  7. Lucia November 29, 2014 at 6:21 pm #

    YEES!!! to everything in this post! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nussaibah December 1, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    Excellent read! Echoes what I think myself and sometimes fail to explain 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Jean December 19, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

    Good start. Part of the Hippocratic travel oath …is in photos put the local people in the centre of the photos, not yourself.

    Or not have primarily landscape, plant or animal photos, but for crying out loud,….the local people. They aren’t the landscape..they are you and I, in flesh.

    I like this blog post theme which can be expanded.


    • Brian December 20, 2014 at 8:27 am #

      Interesting thoughts.

      People are a big part of any destination but you might have noticed they’re not a big part of our photography. That’s because I think photographing people is very personal. I usually only do it if I’ve established some kind of rapport with them. That takes some time and doesn’t yield many photos.

      Liked by 3 people

    • creative1llusion December 21, 2014 at 9:47 am #

      I have never wanted to take a picture of a local person, because I always thought it degrading. .. they are people, not tourist attractions.
      What do you think? Is it offensive?
      I travel a lot, and definitely don’t want to be disrespectful.


      • Brian December 22, 2014 at 1:50 am #

        It can be disrespectful, but doesn’t have to be. At the very least always ask permission. Even better, start by having a conversation with the person.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. NicoLite Великий December 19, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

    Pretty much anywhere I travel to I have friends or family. Which means I haven’t been to Asia yet, but a few friends of mine have been to Japan and China on business trips and later as tourists – and they speak the language. It’s a safe bet that wherever your friends and family who live in the foreign countries take you, you won’t be wasting your money on con artists. If you’re short on friends and family, couchsurfing hosts will ne able to help you out. You needn’t stay over night at a couchsurfing host if you’re staying in a hotel, you can just invite them for coffee.


    • Brian December 22, 2014 at 1:54 am #

      Interesting. We’re familiar with couchsurfing but never thought to engage a host who’s couch we weren’t surfing. Sounds like a great idea.


  11. placesfacesfeasts December 20, 2014 at 1:04 am #

    Reblogged this on placesfacesfeasts.


  12. nicole December 20, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    I really like your article, although I struggle with one point. You say one should consider living animals as living creatures. Nevertheless, you pose for a picture with a macaque on your shoulder. Those monkeys are mostly stolen at a young age from the wild, from their loving mothers and supporting group to live in a small cage, where they are “released” from at touristic places to let tourist take pictures with them. The metal chain on its neck actually says everything: This monkey did not chose to be there.
    This is no offense, as I know most people don’t know what they are supporting when posting for photos with monkeys or other exotic animals. Or even when buying exotic animals as pets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian December 20, 2014 at 8:32 am #

      You have a keen eye and have me dead to rights.

      That photo was taken some years ago when I was a less thoughtful traveler. It’s a photo I’ve used for so long that I guess I’ve kind of stopped seeing it. That is definitely not something I’d do today. Therefore it’s not a photo I should be using as my avatar and I’ll look for a suitable replacement.

      Thanks for calling bullshit on this.

      Liked by 2 people

      • nicole December 20, 2014 at 8:34 am #

        I’m happy to hear that. 🙂


  13. surfsensei December 20, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    I agree wholeheartedly with the ethos of avoiding doing harm.


  14. surfsensei December 20, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    Reblogged this on surfsensei and commented:
    I decided several years ago not to continue leading “challenge” school trips abroad, usually groups of around 20 young people, because I felt groups of this size created an adverse impact on people in the more remote areas where resources are tight. I also saw too much “let’s photograph the ‘exotic’ people” to feel comfortable being a part of that business. If I’m not doing something of real benefit, I begin to question why I’m there; it’s no longer enough for me just to see a beautiful view.


  15. vnp1210 December 20, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    Thanks for this. I wrote some time ago about the elephant tourism industry, just heart breaking.


  16. flowmustgo December 20, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    Love Chaing Mai


  17. fbf2014ml December 20, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on Cybersummit Symposium 2014.


  18. Erin Elaine December 20, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    Reblogged this on Mi vida en España.


  19. Gale A. Molinari December 20, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on galesmind.


  20. natelangdon27382 December 20, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

    If you take the rings off they will die


  21. natelangdon27382 December 20, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on natelangdon27382.


  22. Mrs Wilson December 21, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    Great post! I’ve been lucky to travel quite widely but the older I get the more I consider these things. The treatment of animals in other counties is so vastly different to what we would consider acceptable here in the UK. We went to Malaysia this year and while there visited a aligator park, my husband really loves animals and we thought it would be a conservation type of place. We were sadly very wrong. It was totally horrific. We arrived just in time for a show with animals which were clearly drugged and being taunted and manhandled in a way which was very upsetting. Needless to say we turned around and walked right out. Unfortunatlely there were loads of tourists there lapping it up and taking photos. I can only hope my review on trip advisor will discourage other people from going there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian December 22, 2014 at 1:53 am #

      I think raising awareness is the best way to make a difference. If people stop paying for these kinds of things, they’ll stop happening.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. AmyT December 21, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    Reblogged this on Traveling Tulls.


  24. Lyle Harrison December 21, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    A real eye opener. Thanks


  25. Lyle Harrison December 21, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Reblogged this on Lyle Harrison and commented:
    Think again when twice local tours.


  26. aVerySmallAnimal December 21, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    Reblogged this on a Very Small Animal and commented:
    I remember feeling sick when I watched a group of people (I assumed tourists) taking photos of a dancing bear in Moscow. I was more horrified that they couldn’t see that the animal was so obviously sick and in pain than the spectacle itself.


  27. Earth Speaks Out December 21, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    Wow! What a concept! Do no harm? Well, better late than never, humans! Read this article and get a clue! Wise up and don’t rude. And I know it’s fun to ride elephants, but would you like to have some moron riding you? Don’t ride these SLAVES that are tortured and kept in prison their entire lives. Be a nice human. Support humanity, not cruelty. You can do it!


  28. Earth Speaks Out December 21, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on Earth Speaks Out and commented:
    Wow! What a concept! Do no harm? Well, better late than never, humans! Read this article and get a clue! Wise up and don’t rude. And I know it’s fun to ride elephants, but would you like to have some moron riding you? Don’t ride these SLAVES that are tortured and kept in prison their entire lives. Be a nice human. Support humanity, not cruelty. You can do it!


  29. allyouneedisriley December 21, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    Reblogged this on allyouneedisriley.


  30. spargo94 December 21, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    Reblogged this on A Modern Itch.


  31. priyangthinks December 21, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    Reblogged this on priyangthinks.


  32. Curt Mekemson December 21, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    A well thought out post. Thanks. –Curt


  33. delfiannatens December 22, 2014 at 1:41 am #

    Reblogged this on delfiannatens.


  34. tinakmeyer December 22, 2014 at 4:27 am #

    So well written! Perfect! If only everyone would read it and then travel ethically …


  35. mud fur and feathers December 22, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Reblogged this on Mud 'n Feathers.


  36. janikawrites December 22, 2014 at 9:47 am #



  37. roadlessgraveled December 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    This is brilliant! Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a poignant, organized expression of ethical travel. I often marvel at the same injustices in the international tourist industry. While in Hanoi, Vietnam, I heard all about the ever-popular “Snake House” where snakes would be tortured before tourists consumed every part of the snake. The greatest attraction being the chance to eat the beating heart. Sadly, this business is perpetuated by the lure of an “unique” experience that in reality is sought out by unethical hoards of backpackers. I often write about the differences between travelers and tourists. You are travelers to the core. Cheers to the beauty of this world and treating it with the upmost respect!


  38. SwirlGirl December 22, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

    I recently reblogged a post written by a young (white) American woman who has always wanted to travel and was basically saying how to do it the broke way, by working while in other countries on work visas, and then saving up money, staying in hostels/other housing geared towards low income individuals. My comment on the post was basically what you’re saying, but I said it so much less eloquently. Thank you!


  39. 2015mh December 23, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

    I love it


  40. Clover December 24, 2014 at 2:42 am #

    Wonderful post! Was so pleased to hear the Intrepid have stopped doing elephant rides on all tours this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  41. thenewausterity December 24, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    Thank you for this extraordinary + thoughtful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Paige December 24, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    Such a necessary reminder for people to really pause and consider their impact and own motives. Your post will send out ripples of good in the world. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  43. drtucker2play December 24, 2014 at 6:50 am #

    Thanks for this. I often travel with graduate students, and I work very hard to instill in them the necessity of ethical practices in tourism. It is frequently difficult to separate out the wheat from the chafe, though. Using a highly reputable local travel agent and doing quite a bit of background research ahead of time can help identify frauds.


  44. ayeshawaheed December 24, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    Reblogged this on ayeshawaheed.


  45. test December 24, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on mrrobin86's Blog.


  46. mjjoshim December 24, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on mjjoshim.


  47. snapcrackpopadjust December 24, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    Now actually read the oath. You haven’t. Have you?


    • Brian December 24, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

      Yes, I have and I’m aware that the phrase “First, do no harm” originated in the 19th century whereas the original Greek version said something to the effect “I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.”

      What’s your point? And more importantly, how does that point relate to the topic of the article you’re commenting on? It doesn’t. Does it?


  48. Silvia Romão December 25, 2014 at 4:34 am #

    Excellent perspective! It’s a good thing that we keep it in mind. Specially when we’re travellers.

    Liked by 1 person

  49. Felly December 25, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    “Keep your travel and charity separate”

    That is true and agree with you. South East Asian tourism business actually do this a lot in the name of sustainability tourism. It could be good but also wrong as we are often don’t know if the tourism impacts to local community.


  50. laru004 December 26, 2014 at 4:48 am #

    Reblogged this on laru004's Blog.


  51. laru004 December 26, 2014 at 4:52 am #

    Reblogged this on laru004's Blog.


  52. thep5crazytrain December 26, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

    Excellent. This is fantastic. As somewhat of a gypsy wanderer who never wanders too, too far away (for the time being) my family adheres to some very strict rules of travel. Since the implications involved in our travel as much less grave that the instances you described in your post, all three of my kids (ages 4, 7 and 10) all follow some general rules. The two older kids are scouts, and my Cub Scout (having learned the “leave no trace” concept of BSUSA, adheres to the GIRL SCOUT concept of “leave a place better than you found it.” Teaching social responsibility is imperative. It is more than giving blindly to apparently good causes. It is giving of your time, talent, and resources WISELY and responsibly. You illustrate this perfectly. Having grown up in Panama in the 1980s, I see how easily some people can be exploited for money– both in asking for it and in giving it. You make some VERY good points, and I hope people can learn from it!

    Liked by 1 person

  53. bigbabycaro December 27, 2014 at 3:07 am #

    Reblogged this on bigbabycaro.


  54. hassanmurtadha December 29, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

    Yees!!! To everything in this post ! Thank you!


  55. jonjominns December 29, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Reblogged this on jonjominns's Blog and commented:
    This is something I do personally. I think is essential we respect our hosts whilst travelling. Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  56. mdjhanif December 29, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    Reblogged this on mdjhanif.


  57. Hales December 29, 2014 at 10:28 pm #

    Elephant nature park in chaing mai thailand is amazing, but i wanted to add with the long neck villiage, as i spoke to one of the older ladies on why they do this it’s because are keeping their culture alive and by opening up their villiage to tours is giving them money.


    • Brian December 29, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

      Yes, I’m quite sure there were older women who mourned the cultural loss of foot binding and people today who fight to preserve the practice of genital mutilation but that doesn’t mean I want to support or encourage those kinds of things.


  58. adventuresofjeffandsarah January 1, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on the adventures of jeff and sarah… and commented:
    Sarah and I have been travelling now for a couple of years now, this is a great article and a great idea for everybody to think about when they go about their travels in 2015. Thank you to for the great article. Please check out their site!


  59. jowieya January 3, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    So true, I shared your post to Facebook and Twitter. 👍


  60. Maitreya Buddha January 3, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    Yes. There are nice ways to travel in balance with nature and with respect for all beings. Be mindful in every moment!


  61. journeyingbeyondborders January 4, 2015 at 11:13 pm #

    Reblogged this on journeyingbeyondborders and commented:
    An insightful read –


  62. Kayode Jonathan January 5, 2015 at 1:55 am #

    Reblogged this on kayodejonathan's Blog and commented:
    We have treasures passed down to us from the ancient. Among these treasures are the moral codes. Since the vocabulary changes with different ages and new vocations: we find it hard to interpret and adapt or adopt them.

    Here is the interpretation of some of these moral codes that we should necessarily adopt.


  63. crowdfunding7 January 8, 2015 at 5:00 am #



  64. no1likesmeblog January 11, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    The oath is voluntary
    only. But atleast lawyer dont lie.


  65. no1likesmeblog January 11, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Nice post.


  66. lindalounelson January 13, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    Reblogged this on lindalounelson.


  67. silentohm January 24, 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    Reblogged this on silentohm and commented:
    Good read for anyone traveling afar.


  68. nicole February 17, 2015 at 5:13 am #

    Great post! If you are concerned about animal’s welfare and their misuse as tourist attractions you can report it to this side:


    • Brian February 17, 2015 at 6:25 am #

      Great tip. Thanks for sharing!


  69. Grassroots Nomad February 18, 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    Great post and something all travelers need to strive towards. I will be volunteering around the world over the next year and hope to draw attention to small, grassroots organisations rather than ‘voluntourism’.


  70. rcullen2015 May 12, 2015 at 12:33 am #

    Reblogged this on ROBERT CULLEN'S 3S BLOG and commented:
    From “fulltime wanderers” Brian & Shannon who are “traveling the world on a quest to see everything there is to see . . . at least once”, here a great post for all travelers: How to make and keep a traveler’s Hippocratic Oath. #3S #Satisfaction #travel



  1. An Ethical Elephant Encounter in Thailand | Everywhere Once - December 1, 2014

    […] For tips on ways to travel ethically, see our primer on How to Make (and Keep) A Traveler’s Hippocratic Oath […]


  2. 10 Favorite Destinations, Year 5 | Everywhere Once - May 20, 2015

    […] We would never consider riding elephants, a popular pastime in Thailand that perpetuates a horrific torture process that’s used to break the will and the spirit of these majestic creatures. Instead we had a sleepover at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for the rescued animals in a beautiful jungle valley outside Chiang Mai. […]


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: