TripAdvisor is an online travel site valued at $1.5 billion that rates tourism destinations using consumer posts.
You’ll learn whether facilities are luxurious or lacking, hotel staff is courteous or contemptuous, and if bathrooms sparkle or are scummy.
But you wouldn’t know 39 Americans drowned in Mexico in 2016, some at resorts under mysterious circumstances; possible hotel rapes; or tainted alcohol causing blackouts, vomiting and serious injury.
TripAdvisor deletes those negative posts for violating its guidelines that “every review must be unbiased, family friendly, based on a first-hand experience, and relevant to other travelers,” citing offending ones as “hearsay.”
TripAdvisor changed its stance — sort of — after a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation following the drowning death of Wisconsin college student Abbey Conner, 20, whose brother, Austin, 22, nearing graduation, was hospitalized as well at a Cancun area resort.
TripAdvisor now is placing three-month “warning badges” on sites where alleged problems occurred, including the Iberostar Paraiso Maya, where Abbey Conner died and Kristie Love of Dallas reported being raped by a security guard in 2010. The neighboring Iberostar Paraiso Lindo also got one.
So did the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, where a Boston man receiving a massage, passed out after a potion was place under his nose. He claimed to have been sexually assaulted.
The Conners were found face down in the pool minutes after toasting completion of final exams with a couple of shots of tequila. Both were strong swimmers.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. Two young men drowned under similar circumstances at the Grand Oasis in Cancun in 2012.
The Journal-Sentinel found more than three-dozen cases of tourists blacking out or becoming violently ill after as little as two drinks at resorts in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.
Sixteen Americans drowned in Mexico between January and June, according to a recent State Department report — another three in September that families blamed on tainted alcohol. Others were seriously injured, robbed or sexually assaulted.
In 2015, Mexican officials found 43 percent of the nation’s alcohol was low-cost bootleg concoctions — possibly grain alcohol or dangerous concentrations of methanol, all capable of making people extremely ill — produced under unregulated conditions to circumvent high taxes.
They have seized more than 1.4 million gallons of adulterated alcohol since 2010, including at upscale hotels.
Many tourists paid large sums upfront to be treated at hospitals and clinics suspected of being in cahoots with hotels. The Conners’ family paid $17,000 to a clinic and “tens of thousands more” to a hospital.
Hotels are often part of the problem, Mexican police frequently indifferent.
In October 2010, Kristie Love said a hotel security guard sexually assaulted her at the Iberostar Paraiso Maya while returning to the lobby because her room key had been deactivated.
She repeatedly attempted to post a warning on TripAdvisor. Meanwhile, the resort’s insurance company warned her that unproven allegations, if shared on a public or private website, “could be construed as a crime itself,” leading to prosecution for lost income because of “defamation or blackmailing.”
The local chief of police for tourists had tried unsuccessfully to get the resort to provide security staff photos. Months later, he was found shot dead in his squad car.
Responsible media won’t publish hearsay or allegations without investigating their validity. Guidelines exist about online comments.
Given that the 1996 Communications Decency Act offers TripAdvisor and similar online sites legal protection against negative posts concerning hotels and similar establishments, they may lack the interest, wherewithal or an incentive to investigate. Their revenue is based on clicks to hotel links and commissions for rooms booked.
TripAdvisor’s badge system already is questionable.
The Journal-Sentinel reported in mid-November that the Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas hadn’t received a badge despite a lawsuit by a woman claiming it was negligent in hiring a waiter she accused of sneaking into her bedroom to sexually assault her.
Her lawsuit, the San Jose Mercury News stated Nov. 10, includes the waiter’s Facebook post, “I love being the bad guy that everyone falls in love with, and if I admit it, I have no heart, however, I have perversion.”
It also wouldn’t attach a badge to a Baltimore area tavern whose owner pleaded guilty of installing “Peeping Tom” cameras in the women’s restroom, since its “three-month” policy had elapsed.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TripAdvisor.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., also wants to know how the State Department — remiss in issuing warnings about Mexico until the Journal-Sentinel investigation — “monitors, records and reports overseas incidents involving physical abuse or death after the potential consumption of tainted alcohol.”
Given the private and public sector failures to raise red flags, tourists and travel agents should be diligent, doing searches and scouring independent websites to avoid potential problems.