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Saturday, September 25, 2010

British Hoteliers, Angered By Bad Reviews Threaten To Sue TripAdvisor!

When I visit a hotel or restaurant that is especially wonderful I'm always eager to recommend it to others-- and the place I go is I also go there to report to other travelers about crooked landlords, shoddy service, bad food, etc. It's a rule of the road I learned when I spent a few years driving across Europe and Asia in the '60s and '70s; you always look out for the brotherhood of travelers. Here are some of my most recent reviews from the best fish restaurant in Casablanca and the best Jewish restaurant in the Roman Ghetto to the best hotel in Fieri, Albania, a wonderful villa I rented in Ubud on Bali and all the best boutique hotels in Mali, as well as the best restaurant in Bamako! All the reviews but one-- for the grossly overrated Mamounia in Marrakech-- are positive. But I also have an e-mail from 2007 threatening a lawsuit for explaining how I rented an upscale apartment in Buenos Aires only to find that the landlady had stolen five one-hundred dollar bills out of the safe.

I also check on TripAdvisor for what others have to say, although unless I get a clear consensus about a place, I'm always somewhat skeptical about any one review. Besides so much is just a matter of taste. McDonald's is probably the most "popular" restaurant in the world. But I'd fast for a week before I'd ever eat in one... two weeks.

So I had to laugh today when I saw that the Guardian is featuring a news story on how British hotels are getting involved in a class action lawsuit against TripAdvisor because they don't like the reviews they're getting! It sounds like a bit of a scam by a, a British "reputation management" firm, which is charging £35 (around $55) and "hopes to corral 1,000 peeved owners into a group defamation action."
One guesthouse owner says she has been branded a racist after turning a potential guest away and is so upset she has gone to the police. Another says he is giving up the B&B business he has run for 30 years following an online review claiming his rooms were dirtier than a sewage works. A third claims he is in despair because he seems to be spending more time dealing with unfair reports than actually running his successful seaside hotel.

They are just some of the 700 or so members of the hospitality business who have either committed to, or are contemplating, legal action against TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel review site, over what they regard as unfair reports.

A company specialising in protecting online reputations is collecting examples of comments that it believes overstep the mark. The firm, KwikChex, intends to collate the most "serious" examples, then ask TripAdvisor to take action. On one day this week KwikChex was dealing with an inquiry every five minutes.

Among the cases KwikChex is examining was a review on Brook Barn Country House, in Oxfordshire, a five-star B&B billing itself as a "jewel of a hideaway". Most reviewers on TripAdvisor agreed. "What a fantastic place!" says one enthusiast on the site. "A wonderful country retreat" adds a second.

But if readers scrolled down further this week they came across a review from "Ferdi", an IT salesman of Indian origin from the home counties who asked to be shown around Brook Barn. The hotel's owner, Sarah-Jane Ashman, recalls explaining that she could not as the rooms were full but was horrified a few days later when Ferdi's review appeared and seemed to accuse her of racism.

"I hate to ever think it but are there people out there who still have a problem with the colour of someone's skin?" Ferdi wrote. "I think I'll be staying away and would recommend to any other 'ethnics' to do the same. I don't think they like our sort around there."

Ashman says she was so distraught she called the police, arguing that the review could actually break the law by inciting racism. "Everybody gets bad reviews, that's fine," she said. "But to be called racist is completely wrong." [She could always move the show to South Carolina or Arizona and prosper with the reputation.]

Des Hague's B&B is at the other end of the scale. He charges £25 a night for a single room at Thornsett House, a Victorian villa five minutes from Sheffield city centre. "It's not the Hilton," he said, "But it's tidy and clean."

He claims his business has been undermined by "spiteful" reviews on TripAdvisor. Under the headline "B&B Hell" one reviewer claimed: "I have visited morgues, abandoned buildings, a sewage works and a coal pit. Each and every one was cleaner, tidier and better staffed than Thornsett House."

Other travellers disagree. "Friendly, warm, welcome" says one. But Hague says poor, unwarranted reviews are ruining his business. "Usually the phone is ringing off the hook at this time of year. Now there's nothing."

He says he has been in the business for 30 years but now plans to shut down the B&B. "I can't work out what is happening here. I've had enough," he said.

Earlier, the Guardian had an even more explicit report that must have been terribly amusing for its readers as they were learning there are over 35 million reviews on the decade-old site.
The Oddballs Palm Island Lodge is the second most popular lodge in Botswana's Okavango Delta, according to TripAdvisor. One user of the site, LASFNCY, "would recommend it in a heartbeat. Fantastic and memorable time". Duffyd, however, is not so gushing. "Snakes in my room, baboon pooping and peeing [in] my room and in the showers multiple times a day."

... Despite its critics, TripAdvisor is an online phenomenon; a brief flick through its listings has become a holiday institution, akin to last-minute passport panic, and outrage at airport sun-cream prices. The problem, of course, is oversaturation. As its listings continue to swell, things are becoming a little too noisy, and trawling through 738 reviews for a single hotel is a tiresome exercise. Increasingly, the skill is seeing the wood from the trees; sniffing out the haters (serial internet curmudgeons) and the sycophants (the owner's mum), and trusting the overall wisdom of crowds. Annoyed hoteliers should also heed the golden rule of TripAdvisor: for every 10 brilliant write-ups, there are always a couple of pooping baboons.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Another Trip To Sri Lanka? Or Is It Too Soon?

Polonnaruwa was pretty cool

I discovered Sri Lanka, still Ceylon then, in 1970 when I drove there from England. (There was a funky ferry from Rameswaram in the south of India back in those days.) I loved Ceylon so much back in those days and talked about it in such superlative terms that in 1997, during a quasi-lull in the civil war, I went back for a month with two of friends, Roland and Steve. Well, not exactly a month. The quasi-lull in the fighting wasn't quasi enough. On top of that, all the fighting had taken a serious toll on everything wonderful the country had to offer, even in the areas where there had been no sustained fighting. So Roland and Steve ganged up on me in Negombo, one of the most boring places on the island and persuaded me to cut the Sri Lanka trip short and head off to Thailand.

Now the war is over and the NY Times is calling Sri Lanka its #1 travel destination for the year-- ahead of Patagonia, Seoul, Mysore, Copenhagen, Koh Kood, Damascus, Cesme, Antarctica, Leipzig and... L.A. And guess where Roland wants to go! He's now claiming he has nothing but amazing memories of Sri Lanka and wants to see it again. I suspect its because we went to Artesia to get Indian food a couple weeks ago and he bought a book on Ayurvedic medicine and wants to go to some Ayurvedic shop we stopped by in Nuwara Eliya (although he says there are some luxurious Ayurvedic resorts near Colombo and in Beruwala and Weligama. In fact, they're sprouting up all over the country now.

Now that the war is officially over-- although, apparently some of the Tamil rebels haven't gotten the message, at least not as of last Friday-- tourism is taking off again and hotels are being built everywhere. I hope they're fixing up the infrastructure before they start selling the place to Americans. I have a feeling it is still not quite ready for prime time for non-adventure tourists. In London, today's Sunday Times explores some of the pitfalls of Lankan tourism from the perspective of a Lankan reporter.
With additional numbers expected to be promoted most popular tourism sites visited by both local and foreign tourists are going to get overcrowded. If such sites are not improved on a proper plan and good management with priority being given to sufficient parking and traffic arrangements, good quality restaurants and clean toilet facilities, visitor safety etc. the value to the visitors will not remain for long. This is most relevant to nature reserves and wildlife parks that are extremely vulnerable to pollution and overcrowding. Visiting Yala national park on a long weekend is similar to going to a popular motor-cross event. The number of vehicles entering the park is an absolute harassment to the animals and a speedy way to endanger them to extinction.

Noisy vehicles and obviously high levels of carbon emission can do much damage to the wildlife in a short span of time. Many wild life enthusiasts have highlighted this matter through the media but to no avail. The opening of the Wilpattu National Park will certainly reduce the pressure on the Yala reserve in this respect but stringent controls must be worked out to allow only tolerable numbers to enter national parks, ideally with an advance booking system for peak periods. With all relevant government agencies being wisely brought within one ministry, the processes to deal with such matters is easier than ever before. It is the fundamental right not only of our future generations to see and enjoy nature in its true form, but also of the wildlife itself for its very sustainability.

Prostitution, Paedophilia and Drug menace

These remain as byproducts of tourism especially of mass tourism in certain destinations around the world. These vices have reached dangerous levels in some Asian destinations and are now seen as irreversible, by being entwined in the social lives of local communities. In reality Sri Lanka even at the moment has an issue at hand in this regard. The irresistible love for Dollars, Sterling Pounds and Euros cannot ignore societal damage that can permanently harm civic life and the cultural values of this country. It is critical therefore that there is a broad understanding of these problems and their impacts on Sri Lankan society. This understanding and initiative to prevent it should not only come from NGOs and resource tight government agencies. Since it is virtually a direct impact of the country’s leisure industry, it is imperative that the tourism sector take responsibility and preventative action on these fronts. Damage control should not come only as a CSR activity of a few but as proactive approach from all responsible.

Tourist Police

A destination must not only be peaceful but also safe for a visitor. From early times of tourism in the island certain resorts had tourist police units. To some extent they were effective though not necessarily to the level that they should have been. Three years ago, a Tourist Police section was introduced that set up office at No 78 Steuart Place, Colombo 3, where Sri Lanka Tourism has its offices. This was to look into the safety of tourists. With the expected increase in visitor arrivals, most resorts and tourist sites will require an effective force under this administration to ensure visitor safety.

There have been numerous threats in the past on tourists by local thugs who even have manhandled tourists. Most such thugs are closely linked to local politicians. Hence the police have found that their hands are tied in most cases. A few cases of rape of female tourists also had taken place in the past in certain beach resorts. Theft on the beach and snatch thieving at other places are not uncommon and tourists leave our shores with bitter memories, never to return.

If you do decide to go before we go back and I get to write a big thing about hotels and restaurants, there was one hotel we stumbled upon in the middle of nowhere that I totally recommend, the Kandalama in Dambulla. It was down a dirt road far from anything but... WOW! What an amazing find! It was built into the side of a mountain and overlooked a gigantic lake. We would be swimming in this amazing infinity pool and watching the elephants bathing in the lake below us. The place defined serenity and if we do go back to Sri Lanka I want to spend at leats a week at this place.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Least Expensive Cities In The World

Karakoram Highway, the world's highest, sort of Pakistan's Route 66, except you don't wind up in L.A.

Today's L.A. Times has a photo essay on the least expensive cities in the world to visit. I'm always on the lookout for a good bargain but I've never considered looking for a vacation spot because it's one of the 10 cheapest places to go. That said, between Roland and I, we've been to most of these places. They are inexpensive-- but not always the most memorable. Cheapest of all is Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan, a virtual hellhole and someplace I wouldn't go to if someone paid me. In fact, I was in Pakistan twice and managed to avoid Karachi both times. Crowded, seething with discontent and misery, Karachi is on no one's list of places to visit-- not even Pakistan's It's dangerous and offers nothing much in return. I loved visiting Lahore, the country's cultural capital, and Peshawar, a veritable arms bazaar in the wild, untamed west, and I was in Islamabad-- third cheapest in today's list-- when it was being built and found it interesting in a theoretical way I always find cities built from scratch specifically to be a national capital. The main attraction is the giant Faisal Mosque, once the largest in the world (now the 4th largest) that holds around 300,000 people. It was built in 1986 and paid for by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. That said, according to a recent Guardian, the best places to visit in Pakistan for an average tourist (so, not counting climbing a Himalaya) are ancient Taxila, Lahore, the Karakoram Highway (the world's highest), Karimabad in the Hunza Valley, and Lake Saiful Muluk. None are on the list; all are incredibly inexpensive if you want them to be.

Roland's a big fan of Latin America and he's been to both Managua in Nicaragua (second cheapest) and La Paz, Bolivia (4th cheapest) and loved them both. He was especially unimpressed by La Paz's Mercado de las Brujas, the witch's market, which specializes in dried frogs, llama fetuses and all kind of aphrodisiacs.

Other than my extended stays in Afghanistan in the '60s and '70s neither of us has been to the Stans, although Alan Grayson, who has, assures me they are well worth the efforts. They're on the list. Today's Times essay lists Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan as the 5th cheapest place to visit and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan as the 6th cheapest. Turkmenistan is almost all a giant desert and is sparsely populated. A normal person thinking of traveling there might read the Bradt travel guide to Turkmenistan; I'd recommend Ken Silverstein's hilarious novel, where takes place entirely in Washington, DC, Turkmeniscam: How Lobbyists Fought To Flack For A Stalinist Dictatorship. I might add, that aside from North Korea, Turkmenistan is the world's only remaining Stalinist dictatorship. I always wanted to go there to see some of the old Silk Road towns, like Ashkhabad, but there isn't really much left to see after you've taken a gander at the Ashgabat Flagpole (the world's tallest freestanding flagpole). Instead, there's the Darvaza Flaming Crater which is where, 40 years ago, n oil rig collapsed into a huge cavern of natural gas, creating a fire-filled crater. It's still burning and is hyped as the Gates of Hell.

We've both been to Calcutta many a few times-- Roland again this year-- and that's certainly worth a visit for it's old architecture from the days it was capital of the Raj. It's one of the places where it is inexpensive and filled with plenty of value including wonderful hotels and restaurants.

Roland is really jonesin' for a trip to Ethiopia, and Addis Ababa is the 7th cheapest in the world. But it doesn't have much allure for me and I'm holding out for Madagascar and South Africa. I'm not a big fan of Ethiopia's very distinctive cuisine-- which is available in great abundance on Fairfax Avenue in L.A.-- but Addis Ababa boats lots of colonial monuments and Lucy, humankind's 3-million-year-old ancestor, can be found at the National Museum there.

Numbers 9 and 10 are Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Windhoek, Namibia, neither of which I expect to visit any time soon, regardless of the cheap prices. Well... maybe Tegucigalpa if it's on the way someplace nice.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tangier, Morocco, Rolling Stones... Paul Bowles

There are many timeless qualities about Morocco, timeless and charming, but it's a very different place now than it was the first time I went in the summer of 1969. Right now I'm putting the finishing touches on a trip there-- there have been a dozen since the first one-- and this time it'll basically just be to rent a house in Marrakesh's old city for a month... take some day trips to Essaouira, west on the sea and down over the High Atlas to Taroundant, two of my favorite smaller cities in Morocco. We're flying directly into Marrakech from London, something I don't think was possible in the '60s. I recall always either driving there or taking public transportation from either Casablanca, where Mococco's big international airport is, or from Fes.

The first time I went, though, it was in my VW van and we took a ferry from Algeciras in the south of Spain, a wonderful way to arrive in Morocco for the first time and gradually feel everything change-- the sights, sounds, smells-- between Europe and Africa. I had an idea that Tangier was like the Times Square of Morocco, a place to be avoided until you were hip to the hustles of the country. We took the boat across from Algeciras to Ceuta, still part of Spain, and then drove to T├ętouan and the southeast to Rabat, missing Tangier entirely. After spending all of July traveling around Morocco we felt savvy enough to exit via Tangier. It wasn't for years until I really started liking the city and only then because I had a friend who lived there and who was able to introduce me to its secrets.

This weekend, the NY Times has a travel guide to getting lost in Tangier, Tangier in the high summer, in fact, something I've long learned to avoid. I love the "getting lost in" concept though.
Tangier seemed a good starting point. Not only does it have a magnificent medina that holds out the promise of geographical bafflement, but it is itself also lost in time and space. Since antiquity, Tangier-- at the mouth of the Mediterranean, roughly nine miles from Spain-- has been a gray zone between Africa and Europe, never quite belonging fully to one or the other, though controlled, for greater or lesser spells, by Carthaginian, Roman, British, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Arab forces.

Today, Tangier is known in America thanks in no small part to Paul Bowles, the novelist and composer who settled there in 1947, and the Beat Generation who followed him in search of cheap, exotic living (and, as William S. Burroughs said, “for the boys and the hashish”). For a few decades, Tangier was a playground for the wealthy and the literary-minded, but by the 1980s it was crumbling and dismal. When I told a friend who had visited in 1998 that I would be there more than a week, he was appalled.

Although the first time I went to Morocco I was hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, down south in Essaouira, the Rolling Stones-- and especially Brian Jones-- went there earlier than I did and got me interested in the place. Ironically it was at my friend Absalam's house in Tangier that the Stones recorded part of Steel Wheels in 1989. Good documentary from a Stones' trips to Morocco:

Tip: if you decide to go, reading Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky is more important than any guide book