Back in December 2001 when I was stuck without a bed, amid a torrential downpour, in Cusco I'd have probably prayed for a service such as Trip Advisor to burst onto the internet scene. Instead, with all the hotels listed in the guidebooks full and the scribbled names of places passed on from other travellers booked solid as well, I trudged the back alleys of Cusco for five hours with my backpack trying to find a room.
Travelling days like this are now a thing of the past. Trip Advisor has given the traveller choice and the traveller has responded in kind by enthusiastically rating restaurants, hotels and sights in a free-for-all reviewing frenzy.
I've got no beef to grind with the internet's tourism giant. I don't think Trip Advisor is a guidebook replacement but due to page count restraints and publishing schedules I do think it can be a useful medium for travellers to use in conjunction with one. Unlike a guidebook, Trip Advisor has space for every hotel and restaurant in town so everyone gets a look-in and the right-up-to-the-minute efficiency of the Internet means that all those new hotels and restaurants manage to start building reputations long before the next guidebook author is due in town. It should be a win-win situation for all sides. But it's not.
Everyone knows hotels and restaurants often post fake reviews on their Trip Advisor sites but lately I've stumbled across something far more insidious, and damaging, in the Trip Advisor fake reviews game.
In Town A (which I know well), a person is making money by creating fake Trip Advisor reviews and forum posts for local hotels and restaurants. For the princely sum of US$165 this person will not only post fake positive reviews and forum posts for their clients but also nastily post fake negative reviews on the sites of three of their main competitors.
Now Town A is a small town which lives and breathes tourism. It's the main business there and competition between hotels and restaurants is already ridiculously high. So what happened when this Trip Advisor entrepreneur started selling their dirty service? Well Hotel A used this service and their Trip Advisor rating shot up thanks to the fake positive reviews. They also managed to make their main competition, Hotel B, have a lower ranking than them because of the fake negative reviews this person posted.
Now Hotel B and Hotel C, D, E and F then got wind of this new service and felt like they had no choice but to join in. Otherwise maybe Hotel G, H, I and J were going to use it and end up higher in the Trip Advisor ratings than them. So this person made (and is making) a killing feeding paranoia to Hotels A through to Z. Which explains how Hotel E has managed to get over 100 Trip Advisor reviews despite being open less than a year while Hotel X (currently not using this service) has fewer than 100 yet has been open for three years.
I guarantee that this isn't the only town across the world where this sort of thing is happening. You put a tool like Trip Advisor out into the world and then fail to police it properly and there's always going to be someone who successfully cheats the system. Anyone can create a few different user names, log in and begin writing a bunch of bullshit on Trip Advisor. And some people, with unscrupulous morals, are going to start charging for it.
The just plain dumb
On a funnier note there's another reason why travellers shouldn't take everything on Trip Advisor at face value. This is a REAL review for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Goreme National Park (another place I know well) by Trip Advisor Senior Reviewer Marcia58:
"This is disappointing to hike. What seems to be the best areas are closed to the public. There are some nice views if you have a car. I took one short hike and turned back due to flies and nothing much to see. I'd skip it."
Yeah Marcia58, I agree. It really is terribly disappointing:
Goreme National Park: Too many flies and nothing to see...just skip it.
I have always been good at doing nothing. My idea of perfect happiness is a book and a hammock with the sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatch roof. Or a window seat on a long train or bus journey where I can stare aimlessly at passing scenery for hours. I have a gift for accomplishing very little with no accompanying guilt and some of my happiest travel memories are of times when life slows down to a crawl.
Six weeks at a remote beach camp in Egypt’s Sinai with no distractions except the rhythmic slosh of the waves onto the shore. A week in the dinky Madhya Pradesh village of Orchha spent staring over to the ruined remains of ornate palaces while sipping chai on the wall of the hotel courtyard or sitting on the riverbank reading and watching the dhobi wallahs scrub the mountains of laundry clean. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. I have been known to while away half a day happily lying on a lumpy mattress of a cheap hotel room staring at the patterns of the mildew formations on the ceiling.
So it was with some trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in a town if I liked it. The idea of going on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the entire idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed...well...quick.
Blink and you miss them. A tour can take the hassle out of your travels. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and don’t want to spend a longer time on the road. But how much can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East? For just over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.
Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column and just survey the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as all the get-on-and-off-the-bus and packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on our weary backs.
It was a life of perpetual fast motion. Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.
The afternoon after I wrote my resignation email I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours. Just taking in the atmosphere of blissful contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter of Cairo rooftops, spreading out to the far distance, greeted me at the top.
Being able to travel so slowly is something of an indulgence and a frowned upon treat. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – ipod, plasma-screen TV, mortgage, kids – it’s a little bit naughty to be so lavish with time wasting. I know for me though, now that I've seen the other side of tourism up close, that this is a luxury worth savouring.