Freedom of Speech in a Global Environment.
Vacations are tricky beasts. What to pack, who's going to drive you to the airport, budgeting, accommodations. It can be overwhelming. Plus, who's to say that the hotel you've chosen will make your trip enjoyable? Fortunately, there are plenty of online options to view and see reviews from people who have stayed at the place you've chosen. Reading reviews from people who have already spent days and nights at your destination can give you the information you need to make the right choice for you and your family.
But what happens when the review site fails you?
What happens when local laws and guidelines give all the power to the hotel, and you're left with no recourse?
Bottom line, you may be in trouble, and it may be unclear who is to blame.
A recent example of such a situation involves TripAdvisor (arguably the biggest review site for vacations), the Sea View Hotel and Spa in Koh Chang, and an American expat named Wesley Barnes.
Although the true story may never be known, what we know is as follows:
Barnes, an American teacher who teaches in Thailand stayed at the Sea View Hotel and Spa. There was a disagreement over a corkage fee applied to some liquor Barnes brought in. He posted several negative reviews about his experience, and the hotel then relied on Thailand's excessive anti-defamation laws to have him arrested. Trip Advisor had to step in to mediate the issue to keep Barnes from a 2 year jail sentence. The result seems to be that Barnes apologized to the hotel for his reviews, Trip Advisor promised to not put a “red badge” on the hotel's page, and the hotel itself...got what it wanted, I guess?
Those anti-defamation laws in Thailand seem pretty awesome, if you have a business in Thailand. If you're visiting Thailand?
Not so much.
I can portion blame out to all the parties, but the bottom line is that for a hotel that depends on tourists' dollars, Sea View Hotel and Spa has done little other than ensure that anyone who can read avoids their property in the future. Why would I visit a hotel that would throw me in jail if I write a truthful account of my experience there? What if a waiter is having a bad day and slams my soup onto my table? Should I let it go because Thailand's draconian anti-defamation laws will cost me years of my freedom if I mention it?
And as for Trip Advisor, it's interesting that they would step in this situation, when they've often ignored other complaints by other users. Trips taken by tourists have resulted in sexual assaults, which were brushed aside by local police and consulates, and their reviews detailing their assaults were also removed by Trip Advisor for violating their “family friendly” policy.
I'd like to know what exactly is “family friendly” about the biggest vacation review site in the world protecting hotels and resorts who employee rapists on their staff, and I'd also like to know why Trip Advisor stepped into this situation while ignoring other users' experiences. Could it be because Barnes' experience went viral and the others didn't? I don't know about you, but I don't have a lot of confidence in a service that requires a few million views before they will take my problems seriously.
Bottom line, everyone sucks in this situation. Barnes sucks for not doing his own due diligence when taking a vacation, and for assuming that he would get to have his way no matter what. Trip Advisor sucks for not warning people about possible local laws that might give them years in prison, and the Sea View Hotel and Spa sucks for hiding behind harsh local laws to prevent a tourist from telling the truth.
If we can't speak honestly, if we have to censor ourselves because of fear, then what exactly is the value of a site like Trip Advisor? Why should we give tourist dollars to a hotel that will sue to prevent negative reviews? I, for one, stand by freedom of speech and honesty. If Sea View Hotel and Spa is afraid of that, then maybe they shouldn't get any visitors at all.
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