'Get the truth, then go" is the mantra of TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel-review website, which only makes the following all the more alarming.
Log on to and type the words "racist" or "racism" into its search engine and you might be surprised by what you find: together they crop up more than 2,300 times in reviews. "Pervert/perverted" features in 353 reviews, "homophobic/homophobia" in 295, "rapist" in 33, and "paedophile" in 10. Often, these defamatory terms are used to describe hotel or restaurant staff, B&B owners and receptionists.
"There is a real risk of getting raped here," wrote one reviewer of one hotel; "the proprietor ... is one of the worst paedophile priests," said another of a guesthouse; "the woman that runs this bar is a racist -- fact!"
Can we be sure that these reviews really are the "truth"?
TripAdvisor is also awash with references to food poisoning (10,951), bed bugs (31,429), assault (1,064) and theft (7,554) -- accusations that leave an indelible stain on the establishment concerned, but which can be made without a shred of evidence. Reviews are the words of "trusted members of the travel community", according to TripAdvisor, yet no checks are made on the identity of the people who post them and no proof of stay needed.
In fact, all that is required to upload these travel "truths" is an anonymous username and email address (which can easily be faked). "Our policy clearly states that, in addition to profanity, no hate speech, sexually explicit language or graphic reports of violent criminal activity will be tolerated. We are a proponent of free speech and we believe many aspects of a traveller's experiences are valid travel- planning considerations," said a spokesman for TripAdvisor.
Earlier this year, I uploaded a fictitious nine-bedroom guesthouse -- the 111 Hotel -- using the office address and a picture of our canteen. I added a couple of over-the-top reviews (with blatant hyperbole and five-star ratings). After 10 days of my constant tinkering it was finally spotted, but it was time enough for it to be rated in the city's top 70 guesthouses (out of more than 300) and time enough for an unsuspecting traveller to be potentially duped into parting with a deposit or turning up at an address to be met by someone whose intentions would be unclear.
Only a decade after it was founded, TripAdvisor last month became the first travel website to achieve more than 40 million unique visitors in a month. From the outset its warts-and-all accounts were applauded for shaking up a complacent hotel industry. Instead of glossy brochures and guidebook reviews, travellers suddenly had access to real accounts, from real people, paying real money. The service has also proved popular with many owners of B&Bs and small hotels, whose ratings have earned them high exposure.
But this month, hundreds of hoteliers and restaurateurs are preparing a group legal action against the website. For while good reviews can be the making of hotels, restaurants and B&Bs, bad reviews, which can easily be posted by nasty competitors, can destroy them.
Hotel and guesthouse owners also complain that it is difficult to have a review changed or removed even when they present proof that it is untrue. They claim that the website adopts a "guilty until proven innocent" policy with hotel management.
Even TripAdvisor makes a tacit admission that you cannot trust all the reviews. A spokeswoman said: "Our advice to travellers is to throw out the anomalies that appear overly critical or overly complimentary. What is left is the collective wisdom of the community."
In the meantime, the hotel trade is waiting to see whether there will be an explosion of court cases.
Can we trust TripAdvisor? The jury's out.