In the wake of mounting public pressure and a Free Press investigation, international travel giant TripAdvisor will now flag sexual assault warnings on reviews, making it easier to find out which hotels and resorts have been cited for sex crimes at the hands of employees.
Rather than have to dig through tens of millions of hotel reviews in search of rape complaints, TripAdvisor users will now be able to click through a filter on each property to see if there are any reviews with safety warnings involving rapes, robberies or druggings.
The new safety measure, which was announced on Tuesday, comes months after a Free Press investigation found that sexual assaults are a long-standing and unchecked problem in Jamaica and that several resorts have tried to cover it up. Multiple victims spoke to the paper about confidentiality agreements and payoffs by resorts, and reported their assaults on TripAdvisor — though the negative reviews were buried deep on the website and difficult to find.
Jamaica resorts covered up sexual assaults, silenced victims for years
Resorts in Jamaica are facing a ‘historic’ sexual assault problem
That won’t be the case anymore, says TripAdvisor, noting it did some digging of its own after the Free Press investigation and made an alarming discovery: In the last year alone, TripAdvisor found 1,100 reviews that referenced sexual assault claims by travelers worldwide.
“When your article hit, we started re-evaluating our policies,” said TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt, noting the 1,100 reviews citing sexual assault raised eyebrows. “One incident is horrible — 1,100 is horrific. Having read through many of these accounts, it really motivated us at TripAdvisor to make sure we do right by these survivors and help them find a way to share this information with others.”
Hoyt added: “Your article is a case study for why we are doing what we are doing.”
The Free Press investigation also triggered an island-wide security audit of resorts in Jamaica, which is expected to be completed in June.
Petition demands change, gains support
Also facilitating change at TripAdvisor is the mounting public pressure over its review platform illustrated by a Change.org petition this week, demanding it make sexual assault warnings more visible to users on its website.
An estimated 500,000 people signed the petition on behalf of a woman named Kay, who said she was raped by a tour guide who came with stellar reviews on TripAdvisor.
After the attack, Kay tried to warn future tourists by leaving a review on the tour guide’s TripAdvisor business page. But her reviews were deleted, she said, and her emails to TripAdvisor received no response for weeks.
A petition drive followed.
“The world’s largest travel site shouldn’t recommend women hire rapists for their next vacation,” Change.org said in a statement. “TripAdvisor needs to know that Kay isn’t giving up until they make meaningful changes.”
TripAdvisor does not recommend or rank businesses; all of that is done by users who visit the site.
On Wednesday, Change.org officials planned to deliver Kay’s signatures to TripAdvisor’s office in New York.
TripAdvisor said it has offered to help Kay get her story out.
“We offered Kay to write a review, she turned it down,” said Hoyt, TripAdvisor’s spokesperson.
According to Hoyt, TripAdvisor took down Kay’s first review because it was not written in the first-person, but rather in the third-person. Company policy requires that if people want to write reviews, good or bad, they have to be first-hand experiences, not someone else saying they heard “this or that” happened to someone on vacation: that amounts to hearsay.
According to Hoyt, Kay is concerned about anonymity, though TripAdvisor has tried to accommodate those concerns, he said.
“We offered to help her set up a second anonymous profile where she could leave a nondescript review of what happened to her, and she refused that as well,” Hoyt said. “We’ve given her multiple opportunities to write … If Kay wants to write a review of what happened to her, we’d let her. She has chosen not to do that.”
According to Hoyt, Kay wants TripAdvisor to pull the business listing of the person who allegedly raped her. But the company won’t do that, he said, because it has a policy to list every tourism business, good or bad, and make travelers aware of what’s out there.
“We have a lot of businesses that are poorly reviewed on TripAdvisor and they would love to get pulled. But we have a policy that every business that’s open be listed,” Hoyt said. “If we pulled bad businesses off the site, it would enable them to operate in the shadows without any transparency.”
Related: Jamaica audits resorts in wake of sexual assault scandal
New Jamaica travel alert
The Free Press investigation into tourist sexual assaults started out as a crime story about two Detroit women who said they were raped at gunpoint at a Jamaican resort last fall, but weren’t believed by resort staff and police. The gunman was caught and charged — he was wanted for multiple rapes in a nearby parish — though police initially painted the case as a sex-romp gone wrong. Jamaican tourism and police officials also maintained it was an isolated incident and that sexual assaults rarely happen there.
State Department data told a different story: Over seven years, from 2011-2017, 78 Americans reported being raped in Jamaica — that’s roughly one U.S. citizen raped a month. The victims include a Michigan woman who said she was gang raped by three resort lifeguards, her teenage friend who said she lost her virginity to a resort rapist, a Georgia mother who said she was sexually assaulted in the water by a resort employee and an au pair who said she was drugged and raped at a resort.
The State Department also has issued numerous travel alerts warning tourists about Jamaica, the most recent one in April, which states: “Exercise increased caution in Jamaica due to crime … Sexual assaults occur frequently, including at all-inclusive resorts.”
TripAdvisor, meanwhile, isn’t new to controversy.
In 2017, TripAdvisor apologized to a Texas woman for deleting her review that detailed her rape by a security guard at a Mexican resort. TripAdvisor said the review was removed because it contained graphic language that violated community standards, but that it has since been reloaded on the website and that no reviews alleging sexual assault have been taken down.
TripAdvisor’s apology followed a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation that revealed how TripAdvisor had deleted reviews from travelers reporting alcohol-related blackouts, rapes, injuries and deaths while vacationing at resorts in Mexico.
TripAdvisor has maintained that it did not delete any actual first-person reviews, but rather only took down comments that were posted in forums for violating various community standards that no longer exist.
Contact Tresa Baldas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@Tbaldas.