In recent years, the travel industry has witnessed a series of technological innovations. Long gone are the days of trekking to the local travel agency to find plane tickets. With online booking, such intermediaries have become superfluous. Not to mention the discounts that add up by booking a hotel online. Prior to departing, travelers can visit locations virtually through the World Wide Web. Once there, a Smartphone app can guide travelers around using the latest GPS updates. And before the plane even lands, friends and family can know about the trip through posts on Facebook, photos on Flickr, or a combination of both on a personal travel blog.
Clearly, the travel industry isn’t the same as it was ten or twenty years ago. And while information abounds on the ethical implications of tourism in general, very little has been written about the specific effects and ramifications of technology. The Global Code of Ethics by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) was initiated in 1997 and granted in 2001, but doesn’t even mention the word “technology.” And yet given the importance of technology in the latest touristic developments, it probably should. On the surface, most of the technological services in the travel industry can be deemed useful; they speed up booking processes, procure discounts and guide us through an unknown destination where we might otherwise have gotten lost. But what are the ethical implications behind this seemingly beneficial façade? How do the technological advances affect local communities? What happens when a hotel or restaurant gets a bad review on TripAdvisor or Yelp? Are there ways that touristic establishments can “game” the system to get higher ratings?
The questions abound. It makes sense to start from the consumer standpoint: that of the tourist. While it is impossible to make sweeping generalizing statements about the behavior of tourists, it is reasonable to say that most travelers find themselves affected by the recent developments in technology. Only a few years ago, my family always went to a travel agent in person to inquire about flights. Now, with online booking, I wouldn’t dream of leaving the house to purchase my tickets. Not only are the prices usually cheaper online, but I can also compare prices or use an online service such as farecompare.com. Thanks to the Internet, information is available to us directly at our fingertips.
Yet precisely because of how easy it is to post information online, one also has to use travel info found online with a caution. Gregory Hubbs serves as editor-in-chief of Transitions Abroad, a publication that provides first-hand reports about experiences abroad. He says that “it may be hard to know the validity” of the information posted on social networking sites that post information about travel destinations, study abroad programs and other educational travel initiatives. “For example, I would never, ever take recommendations for a place to eat from a stranger. I would either find it on my own by wandering through the towns, or, in Europe, consulting the great Guide Michelin, which rarely leads us astray. Too few people know what good food is, in my opinion,” he added.
And yet many others continue to share information about their trips via technology. María de los Angeles, a freelance writer and editor specializing in travel to South Florida, explains
“I use online social networking heavily during my trips -- I post photos, comments, Foursquare check-ins and tips, live streaming video, etc; All this allows my followers to travel virtually with me. I see no issue with this, as it's all expected to be fun, spontaneous coverage that actually supports the destination. However, when I post on my blog, I abide by strict fact checking.”
Despite her extensive use of social media, she does “shut it all down” when she travels for personal enjoyment. “I have a friend who just went on a honeymoon and she was only allowed 15 minutes of Facebook time each day,” she said.
To me, the fact that such restrictions even need to be put in place results a bit disturbing. Allan Lynch, a freelance writer who dedicates himself to corporate and Canadian travel, agrees:
“I read a study a few years ago that said most Americans like to check their office email while on holiday, just to clean it up and not get behind. It seems that Americans are so hyper-concerned about keeping up with work, that they almost go through withdrawal whilst on holiday. I think that's a little sad. You're cheating yourself and/or your family or friends. Most people don't get any extra compensation for this and it seems to be part of the erosion of personal time. Most people leave their homes today outfitted with so much technology that they're never not on-call.”
Lynch proposes a question: “What happened to living life? There’s a wonderful serendipity to getting lost and discovering things for ourselves. People seem afraid of that. I think we need to let go and unleash the inner Marco Polo within us.” Hubbs concurs: “Amen for getting offline.”
Interestingly, the latter comment originates from an online forum thread initiated by Travel Fish, an online backpacking guide to Southeast Asia. It seems ironic that an online travel guide would tell you not to use it. But through this proclamation, Stuart Macdonald, the creator of Travel Fish, alludes to an essential point in the tourism ethics debate: When you get offline, you connect with the environment around you—specifically, with the locals. This leads us to the question: How are local communities affected by the plethora of technology advances?
Alex Moran of Independent Travel China (www.independenttravelchina.com) explains that,
“I used to lead tours of wealthy westerners and travel professionals into dirt poor, very remote, ethnic Laos villages. To see my guests in their fancy clean clothes and jewelry, while holding their camcorders in front of them while walking amongst the dirty, semi naked natives, was akin to watching a landing party from the original Star Trek TV shows with their Tricorders held up in front of them. It was quite a sight, but it never created any issues with the villagers (though I'd always ask permission first). It's always best to ask any person or group before taking their picture. Not so much for cultural or religious reasons, but mainly because if you don't, many times the subjects will insist on being paid--and that can set a bad precedent.”
I experienced a similar scenario when I volunteered at several primary schools in Moshi, Tanzania. The children whose classrooms I was painting had just finished wrapping together plastic bags they had collected for weeks on end. Finally, they had found some string to tie them all together, and what resulted was their new toy: a hand-made soccer ball. When we (white) volunteers came in with our expensive cameras and video recorders, they immediately stopped playing and gathered around us with those amazed faces you see time and time again in many magazines. It was their first time seeing a video camera, and when we showed them that it was recording their very own images, they started waving and smiling to themselves on the little video screen. Completely enthralled by the camera and its recording capabilities, they even forgot to play with their hand-made soccer ball for a period of time. On the surface, they show a smile, but I cannot help but wonder how they, and locals in general, really feel about incoming tourism and the technology it brings with it.
Zora O’Neill finds herself on both ends of the tech-spectrum: she has been writing guidebooks since 2003 for Rough Guides, Lonely Planet and Moon. Moreover, she recently wrote an iPhone app Cool Cancun and Isla Mujeres. With regard to the digital divide, she notes that “what I am afraid of seeing happen is that businesses that have websites become the only things listed in guidebooks (or their digital equivalent.)” Though this isn’t (yet) the case for the companies she writes for, she suspects that “as budgets gets squeezed” some guidebooks already “limit sending writers to destinations to research, and rely on what they can easily verify online.” In specific regards to Mexico, her area of expertise, she has observed that,
“There’s definitely a divide between savvy, foreigner-owned hotels with great websites and some Mexican-owned places that might be nice enough, but don't put themselves out on the internet as well or at all. And of course with interactive tech, like iPhone apps, businesses with websites or emails have an advantage, because people can click through to see more. For a biz with only a phone number, it's effectively a dead end for browsing.”
A website is the port of entry to attracting tourists. But coding html isn’t enough; in most cases, for a website to be successful, the information has to be in English, if not multiple other languages. There is not only a technological divide, but a language barrier, too, which go back to education. Seba de Praxis, an Argentinean native from Rosario, left his hometown to travel south to Bariloche. After falling in love with the Patagonian landscape, - glimmering blue lakes and snow-capped mountains, - he wanted to stay longer and work at a hostel. His good intentions, however, weren’t enough; he didn’t speak any English.
For three months, he put all his energies into learning the international tourism language, and with near fluency, was then accepted to work at Hostel Inn Bariloche. Here, one of his responsibilities was to go around town and approach incoming travelers about whether they had booked accommodations already, and whether they might be interested in staying at the Hostel Inn. Many times, travelers would tell him that they had already made a reservation at 1004, a hostel that received raving reviews on Lonely Planet. For de Praxis, it was a frustrating job; there was little that he as a sole individual could do to come up against the “Bible,” a term that the Lonely Planet guidebooks (be it print or digital) have acquired among backpackers over time.
De Praxis’ fight against the guidebook empire is a theme that Thomas Kohnstamm first addressed in Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A former Lonely Planet writer himself, Kohnstamm’s controversial story details how he put together the guidebook for Brazil. In one of many episodes, he writes that,
“The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight. We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner. I pen a note in my Moleskine that I will later recount in the guidebook review, saying that the restaurant is a pleasant surprise…and the table service is friendly.”
While Kohnstamm’s musings need to be read with a grain of salt, and one can hope that not all travel writers behave in his unprofessional manner, he does have a point. Travel reviews, whether influenced by sexual propositions or otherwise biased initiatives, can be arbitrary. One restaurant is featured in a guidebook, and the one next to it isn’t. Why? Even though we can hope that there is a good reason for this, often there isn’t. And moreover, the establishment that isn’t featured can suffer a disadvantage, as both de Praxis and O’Neill’s standpoints have noted.
But travel writers aren’t the only ones with an ethical responsibility when they portray a place. The establishments, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and otherwise, can play a great role not only in their own destiny, but in that of the fate of the destination they are situated in as a whole. Brian Meissner, owner of a boutique hostel in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, says, “I am both affected by the question (of reviews and how Punta de Diablo is portrayed as an international destination) as much as in a smaller scope I affect it.” He proudly mentions that his hostel “has been featured everywhere from London’s The Guardian to Lonely Planet and even National Geographic, helping make Punta del Diablo an international destination.” He moreover outlines that this is in large part due to “our use and facilitation of travel writing, reviewing and tech-fueled information exchange.” In fact, he has observed that in Punta del Diablo,
“The town’s character is being retained by the French, Swedish, and Australian and other international vacationers who support the traditional industries and invest in property where they build small cabanas and seaside homes that reflect the town as it is, not as it was or could be. In contrast, speculators from Montevideo and Maldonado tend to lack perception of the foreign market and change the local tourism supply in order to provide offerings to a market they are not themselves part of. Lack of ability to identify with a place, its people, and the attraction of the two together, to me is a more dangerous element than rapid spread of information or 'discovery' that brings new influences.”
Meissner regards his property as fortunate to have received a lot of good press. Bad reviews, in turn, he confronts “by accepting the criticism” and “pledging to improve.” According to Meissner, “inevitable maintenance problems and physical limitations” spawn most negative reviews, and the important response is to make the overall experience “unforgettable.” “When you take that motto to heart you can always spin bad reviews from the tangible to the amorphous experience,” he affirms.
However, because of technology, there are more ways to “spin” reviews. What many consumers don’t know is that there are entire agencies and services devoted to review monitoring. ReviewPro, for example, offers a reputation management tool for hotels that allows them to monitor reviews and analyze their online reputation. “We talk a lot with clients (hotels) about how this affects them,” says Edwina Dendler, the social media manager for ReviewPro, “short answer is, reviews can have a huge impact on online sales due to the way online travel agencies list hotels.” Specifically, she explains that “ReviewPro helps hoteliers to increase guest satisfaction and increase revenue by proactively managing their online reputation. The company gathers more than 70 million reviews — in 10 languages – from thousands of sources, including over 60 of the most relevant online travel agencies, review sites as well as leading social media websites.”
Dana Communications similarly consults with hotels about the best practices of responding to online traveler reviews. Jeff Gurtman, the agency’s vice president of strategy, explained that the agency essentially does two things: “We provide hotels with best practices and training regarding review site responses and social media engagement guidelines and have the capability to manage the entire response and engagement process.” According to Gurtman, there is clearly a “right” and a “wrong” way to respond to reviews:
“At its best, online review responses become a great way for hotels to publicly showcase real world problem resolution. They can be an excellent way to show current and potential guests that they care about issues and take a proactive stance to address them. Honesty and transparency are key. Responses should neither be boilerplate nor generic. Responses should be "on brand" and directly address the reviewer's comments. In other words, not a form letter.
Publicly offering freebies is generally a bad idea as it can lead to a bunch of "me toos." In general hotel management should avoid making promises (i.e. free stays, meals, etc.) online as the result of a service misstep. While each guest experience is important to preserve, hotels should be careful to not capture the attention of opportunists cruising responses for potential freebies.”
Angela Berardino is the vice president of travel and digital communications of Turner PR, an agency that similarly “works with clients on a retainer basis to provide social media services, ranging from strategic planning to full-service implementation.” In bold, she highlights that “No member of our staff is allowed to create a personal review of a client, or a competitor, ever.” Berardino’s agency, like ReviewPro and Dana Communications, doesn’t create “fake content.” But Berardino has “heard stories of companies hiring people to create a large volumen of fake reviews – something that is not just unethical, it’s illegal under the new FCC guidelines.”
Berardino’s agency prides itself on helping clients engage with consumers. “We don’t ever recommend doing anything in that vein,” thus, creating fake content, she explains. “However, businesses can be smart about encouraging legitimate reviews by adding links to Yelp or Tripadvisor to post-stay emails or receipts, and integrating content/links from reviews into other social channels like Facebook and Twitter.” To explain more closely how her agency’s service works, she added:
“We look first and foremost at where business is coming from; for example, for hotels with a huge drive market Yelp is critical, while it’s less impactful on a resort that is located in a remote or non-urban area. Yelp doesn’t have Mexico content yet, but TripAdvisor has robust content for Mexico properties. OpenTable is huge in some cities, and not in others. We also look at the age and behavior demographics of the target audience – an urban boutique hotel has a very different audience than a traditional Caribbean resort, and those audiences behave differently online. Most sites that offer reviews also sell advertising or enhanced listings to businesses, and we sort through the value of those offers to help clients determine where to invest resources.”
The only digital divide Berardino sees, “is with businesses that don’t put any resources toward digital under the guise that 'social media is free' and/or 'I don’t use it, so why should I pay attention. (…) That’s probably the root of the divide – hotel/restaurant guests are online a lot, and hotel/restaurant staff often aren’t.” According to Berardino, this digital divide is “shrinking rapidly” and the “low barriers to entry for digital programs have leveled the playing field.” A business that previously couldn’t afford an expensive web designer can now create a simple page using a template. In fact, as Berardino affirms, “small independent businesses can often rock a social media program better than a large national chain, because despite the difference in marketing budgets, large chains often struggle to adapt quickly to all of the opportunities.”
Lalitha Swart, an experienced travel, high tech executive and Founder of TripSketch, a trip planning website with a green travel bias, is convinced that “digital innovations can be used to promote responsible tourism.” According to Swart, information on green travel, meaning “lowering your carbon footprint by using public transport, frequenting small, local businesses, taking a walking tour instead of a bus tour and so on,” is “not readily available. “Travelers have to search for that information.” Her website TripSketch seeks to inform travelers about responsible tourism, and specifically, short-term voluntourism opportunities, “where a traveler can mix tours and volunteer opportunities with a traditional vacation.” Examples would include overnight home stays in rurally disadvantaged communities, bringing school supplies to a school or an orphanage, visiting small locally owned restaurants, assisting in English conversation practice, or helping children with basic numeracy. Swart and her team recently developed a mobile app covering green activities, including social projects, for Nokia phones, which won first prize in the eco/green category of Nokia's Calling All Innovators competition.
Back in 2006, David Fennell, author of Tourism Ethics, questioned how easy it is for tourism organizations to market to the ethical tourist (Cooper & Hall 104). He asked, “whether ethical holidays are just a ploy to increase the margins for certain target market groups and to exploit a trend in society” (Cooper & Hall 104). While I by no means want to question Swart’s integrity and her motive behind dedicating herself to responsible tourism, the recent rise of focus on “green travel” does question whether companies are once again taking advantage of the responsible/ethical tourism trend to gain competitive advantage. And in this case, technology would be at the forefront of fueling the competitive advantage to exploit a trend for economic gains.
Also in 2006, Derek R. Hall and Frances Brown argued in Tourism and Welfare: Ethics, Responsibility and Sustained Well-Being that there is a “lack of pressure for companies to become ‘actively ethical’: while consumers often punish unethical companies, they do not necessarily reward ethical organizations” (9). Given that the WTO’s Code of Ethics still remains the same, and that few initiatives have been enforced since then, one can suppose that Hall and Brown’s statement generally remains true today. And yet prizes such as the eco/green category of Nokia’s prize awarding do show that technology shows an interest in rewarding those “actively ethical” organizations. Again via technology, a broadcast and a PDF press release, companies such as Swart’s gain attention – in this case, specifically my attention as she responded to one of my queries on “Help A Reporter Out.”
Some may continue to argue that “there is no such thing as bad press” or that “any press is good press.” In Berardino’s opinion, “as a general review, one really bad or really glowing review isn’t going to have a huge impact – but the average tone of those reviews is important.” But there remain places that want no press. A family-run establishment near my apartment in Spain, for example, has asked me not to write a review about it. An appearance in an international travel guide would have tourists trekking here everyday and snapping pictures. It would ruin the authentic, local and family-like atmosphere that reigns here every day, especially on Sundays. In fact, an unwanted review already appeared on Salir.com, the Spanish equivalent of Yelp.com. Here, the reviewer had misunderstood the name of one of the waiters, which I won’t publish here precisely because the owner’s wouldn’t want me to. The waiter’s new name became a running joke of those of us who return time and time again, and he actually responds to that name now.
As Hall and Brown note, “for, although information technology and communication have displaced personal contact in a number of aspects of travel and holiday provision, there remains a wide range of contexts where face-to-face interaction is still central” (166). In fact, I cherish the time in that particular restaurant, because it has no cell phone coverage. It is in true local places such as these that you can disconnect, experience the culture of the country you are in. How to find them? Definitely not through the latest app.
Learn more about Isabel Eva Bohrer at www.isabelevabohrer.com.