Skift Take

A Thailand hotel filed criminal charges, now dropped, against a review writer. But it's now the hotel itself that will get penalized because its placement on Tripadvisor's pages will get demoted for 90 days.

Tripadvisor paid the legal fees of an American who was jailed in Thailand for a couple of days pending making bail for writing a derogatory review of a resort in Koh Chang, and posted a warning about the property above its site listing.

“This hotel or individuals associated with this hotel filed criminal charges against a Tripadvisor user in relation to the traveler writing and posting online reviews,” the message from Tripadvisor says. “The reviewer spent time in jail as a result. Tripadvisor serves its users best when travelers are free to share their opinions and experiences on our platform — both positive and negative. The hotel may have been exercising its legal rights under local law, however, it is our role to inform you so you may take this into consideration when researching your travel plans.”

The issue grew out of a dispute over the user reviews of Wesley Barnes, an American expat who had worked as a teacher in Thailand, and the Sea View Resort & Spa Koh Chang, which on Wednesday still had a 4.5 out of 5 bubble rating on Tripadvisor, and featured a 2020 Travelers’ Choice logo from Tripadvisor at the bottom of the hotel’s homepage.

The New York Times broke the story about Tripadvisor’s action.

Although the warning notice doesn’t impact Sea View Resort’s 4.5 bubble rating, the property’s popularity index, which compares reviews against other hotels in the area, will shortly be downgraded for 90 days. On Wednesday, before Tripadvisor’s algorithmic penalty went into effect, Sea View’s popularity index stood at 10 out of 86 properties in Koh Chang. The demotion will likely hurt the hotel’s business because the property will appear lower on the page when travelers search for hotels on Tripadvisor.

The resort filed criminal charges against Barnes under Thailand’s defamation laws because of a now-deleted June review headlined “Modern Slavery” that violated Tripadvisor’s guidelines, and a July 3 review that’s still on Tripadvisor under the title “Unfriendly staff and horrible restaurant manager.”

“Unfriendly staff, no one ever smiles. They act like they don’t want anyone there. The restaurant manager was the worst. He is from the Czech Republic. He is extremely rude and impolite to guests. Find a another place. There are plenty with nicer staff that are happy you are staying with them.”

In the hotel management’s response on Tripadvisor, Rooms Division Manager Tom Storup charged that Barnes, identified as Wesley B. on the site, defamed the food & beverage manager and resort.

“We are certain, however, that everyone that reads and compares your review to that of all our other guests will see that your comments are far from the truth,” the manager wrote. “We think it is very unfair for that you have chosen to try to give a very negative image of our wonderful resort and our very friendly staff so we would like to shed some light on what made you go this far.”

The hotel’s restaurant apparently drew Barnes’ ire during his late-June stay for charging him a nearly $16 corking fee for bringing in liquor purchased elsewhere. Dining with friends at the hotel restaurant, Barnes was allegedly unruly and used abusive language during the incident, according to published reports.

Facing a couple of years’ prison time, Barnes reached a settlement with the hotel that called for him to apologize and secure an agreement from Tripadvisor that it wouldn’t append a “red badge” warning label about the hotel on its listing. Tripadvisor paid Barnes’ legal fees and apparently coaxed the parties to negotiate. A Tripadvisor spokesperson decline to publicize how much it paid for Barnes’ legal fees. He left the country.

For Skift Forum Asia, which took place last month before the settlement, Tripadvisor CEO Steve Kaufer said he had been unaware of Thailand’s defamation laws and was surprised they would be enforced. Kaufer said he doubted any tourism board would want their destination known as one that jails people who write hotel or restaurant reviews.

“Tripadvisor strongly opposes any action where a business, like the Sea View Hotel & Spa in Koh Chang, uses local law to send someone to jail for expressing their opinion,” said Tripadvisor spokesperson Brian Hoyt Wednesday. “This extraordinary action is why we have taken steps to issue an alert to other travelers, in the form of a notification on the hotel’s listing page on Tripadvisor.”

Tripadvisor has been criticized in the past for at times not being assertive enough in warning travelers about properties where sexual assaults had taken place, and introduced a safety review filter.

This dispute did not involve a sexual assault, but in the case of the Thailand reviewer getting charged, Tripadvisor took a much more aggressive approach to protect free speech, which is a foundation of its review business.

The Sea View resort didn’t immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

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Tags: thailand, tripadvisor, ugc, user reviews

Photo credit: Sea View Resort & Spa in Koh Chang, Thailand got into a dispute with a guest who wrote a disparaging review on Tripadvisor. The resort is shown on January 6, 2019. Thai Travel Tips / Creative Commons/Flickr

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