TripAdvisor is the largest travel site in the world, with 456 million people visiting the site every month to search for accommodation and other hospitality sites ranked according user reviews.
Two women alleged they were raped by staff employed by businesses currently promoted on TripAdvisor and said the company is failing its “duty to public safety” in the way it handles such complaints. They said they fear others are at risk without information about prior alleged incidents being made visible on the business page. These hotels are continuing to be promoted on TripAdvisor.
One woman said she was raped by a tour guide whose business was being promoted on the TripAdvisor. After contacting the hotel where he worked and reporting him to the police, she wanted to warn other tourists.
TripAdvisor’s response was to tell her to leave a first person review detailing her sexual assault on the website.
“I was in disbelief. Am I seriously being asked to recall the humiliating details of my own sexual assault? Was this global company pushing me to relive my trauma on their forum for everyone to see and comment, or worse of all for the perpetrator who is still out there, to respond to me, troll me?,” she said. “It left me feeling shattered, hopeless and alone.”
TripAdvisor told her that they do not remove a business from their site if a staff member was accused of sexual assault or rape, even temporarily to conduct an internal review. The company then shared 5 links with her of reviews detailing sexual assault and rape, allegedly committed by staff at different hotels, as examples of how she might write her own review.
In one review that TripAdvisor shared with her in an email dated November 2018, an 18-year-old woman said she had her drink spiked and was raped at a resort in Jamaica. She claimed the hotel hired lawyers to mount a case against her, even after undergoing a rape test at a local hospital.
The resort currently has a 4.5-star rating out of 5. There is no flag on the hotel’s TripAdvisor page to suggest any such attack has ever occurred. The only way to know would be to scroll through and read more than 5,000 reviews.
TripAdvisor ranks hotels based on the star rating given by users, but individual reviews are presented chronologically on listing page for the hotel. A review which detailed allegations of sexual assault could easily be overtaken by more recent reviews and be harder to find.
There are 40 examples of reviews describing sexual assault, rape, and groping committed by staff members of highly-rated hotels and other travel businesses on TripAdvisor. In only 14 of those cases, the hotel or travel business – such as tour guides – had replied to the review, with just one review indicating whether disciplinary action had been taken against the staff member in question.
TripAdvisor left this woman’s review as pending, because she did not write it as a first person account and it remains unpublished. She told the company she did not want to publish “first hand experiences” in fear of being contacted and identified by people whose attention she did not want to attract, including the alleged perpetrator. TripAdvisor suggested she created a burner account under an anonymous name to leave the review.
TripAdvisor has previously attempted to grapple with complaints of sexual assault. In November 2017, it said it would add a warning tags to hotels where “health, discrimination, and safety” issues have been reported – but would not explicitly say what the business has been flagged for. The decision came after the company deleted a review detailing a rape case in a hotel in Mexico because the language used breached its guidelines.
The amount of time a badge remains on a business listing is determined on a case-by-case basis, but the company uses a period of 3 months as a guideline for re-evaluation. TripAdvisor said there are currently 4 flags up on business listing pages. None of the flagged hotels or travel businesses have any warning on the business page of prior allegations made about staff.
Complainants believe a red flag on a business for 3 months to evaluate the ongoing safety of the listing is not enough, especially when little to no action is taken against the alleged attackers still employed at hotels and businesses.
Another woman, Christine, 44, from Toronto, Canada, alleged she was raped in a hotel in the Caribbean while on holiday with her family. She said the process of leaving the complaint of sexual assault as a review was futile as reviews were routinely “buried” by other reviews, making it difficult for users to find.
She added that the reviews detailing sexual assault attacks should not be lumped alongside other 1-star reviews complaining about “bed sheets.”
“They definitely should have a different kind of review system, for these types of incidences so they’re not buried in with everyone’s reviews about you know, the quality of the towels or the sheets. Especially if it’s a safety issue, particularly for women.”
Christine decided to go public with her story because, she says, “TripAdvisor has a major platform and really they have a duty for public safety, because it is a big problem. I’m not overstating it when I say it’s widespread.
“Many women contacted me and said this has happened to them, too, by a different staff member at another hotel. And we need to be aware of it.”
TripAdvisor said while the company was unsure if the reviews complaining of rape would have an impact on a business, it believed reviews were “very helpful” to travelers to inform them about where to stay or visit.
TripAdvisor added it had a team of hundreds of people working on content moderation focused on “maintaining the integrity” of the site, and that thousands of reviews on the website described health and safety issues, including sexual assault and other crimes.
The company said it took into account a number of issues before giving a business a flag, including whether a staff member of a business listed was implicated in the review complaint. The company adds a flag to listings where there are media reports of the issue or when a first-hand review is not “readily accessible.”
It said its notifications are not confirmation of the events but were there to “encourage consumers to do additional research outside of TripAdvisor” of the safety of the businesses. However, the company claimed most businesses that had received a flag had taken steps to address the issue that caused the media coverage.
In a statement to the Guardian, TripAdvisor said: “It is terrible that some travelers endure serious issues such as assault or rape, and we hope our platform can be used by them to help warn and protect others. It is important that reviewers follow our publishing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of our reviews, and when these reviews are not readily available and news reports exist that detail recent and pervasive health and safety matters, TripAdvisor’s notification process helps alert travelers about potential issues at a location.”