Following complaints, TripAdvisor makes changes with vague travel warnings

WASHINGTON — TripAdvisor has a new “badge” feature that lets consumers know when serious accusations are made, such as a traveler reporting being raped at a hotel. But the notification, which shows up as a message in a red box at the top of the page of a business, doesn’t detail specifics.

For instance, the message on the listing for the Iberostar Paraiso Maya resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, reads: “TripAdvisor has been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning this property, which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing. Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans.”

The site has also updated its rules to allow posts that include firsthand accounts of crimes, according to TripAdvisor.

The changes come after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found dozens of travelers who say TripAdvisor refused to post their accounts of frightening incidents at Mexican resorts, including assaults and rapes.

A statement posted Nov. 3 on LinkedIn by TripAdvisor co-founder and CEO Steve Kaufer said, in part:

“The integrity of our site and our content is extremely important to me as we seek to continue to be a trusted source for travelers. As a point of clarification, we have always maintained — since our founding — a strict separation between our commerce and content businesses. Despite assertions and statements that are being made in the media, there is no tie between commercial relationships with our partners and how our content guidelines are applied to reviews or forum posts published on the site. We have always supported travelers’ rights to share their firsthand experiences honestly and candidly, whether positive or negative. It is the fundamental principle on which our site is built.”

The statement also said that the company apologized to a rape victim who had a TripAdvisor review removed from the site seven years ago.

But that woman, Kristie Love, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that TripAdvisor did not contact her to apologize.

Her post has since been restored to the site, although with its original date, so that readers have to dig back through seven years of reviews to find it.

“One of the reasons why I think they issued the apology was that the complaints in the reviews were not all made at the same time,” CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg told WTOP. “So that there are some people who were later making the claim that because they didn’t read those complaints, they went back to those resorts and they too were victimized.”

He said a big question needs to be answered. “Do they perform the function of a travel agent or just another website? And that has not yet been determined in a court of law. And I think what that little red box is right now is an attempt to make sure it doesn’t go to court.”

Greenberg has anonymously tested TripAdvisor’s ability to vet reviews.

“I wrote 20 reviews of resorts or destinations that I’d never been to and used every word that ends in ‘-st.’: best, greatest, most, finest, I threw the word ‘pamper’ in there, paradise, luxury — they ran every one of them. So, that calls into question their vetting process.”

“There have been some other incidents that I’ve discovered where hotels will incentivize their guests to write a positive review on TripAdvisor, and then will offer the guests a discount or a free meal in return. This, in many cases, might be incentivizing guests literally to lie,” he added.

Greenberg thinks TripAdvisor must make more changes in order to maintain credibility. “I think if they’re really going to be doing the service that they purport to be doing, they need to be totally transparent. They need to vet their reviews,” he said.

“And if somebody is reporting something as serious as an attack or a crime or something even worse, a capital crime, they need to totally investigate it themselves. They can’t just be a clearinghouse.”

His advice for TripAdvisor users?

“I’ll go back to the days of Gorbachev and Reagan: Trust, but verify.”

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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