“Tourism and the Digital Transformation” is the theme of this year’s World Tourism Day on 27th September. For small players and socially responsible initiatives in tourism, new technologies, applications, platforms and online forms of communication entail new opportunities – but also risks. So called “user-generated content” may make or break companies. A sense of responsibility on the side of the tourists is therefore key, both when it comes to writing reviews or to assessing existing reviews of touristic products online.
In the pre-Web 2.0 days, experts used to recommend touristic products, based on their knowledge of facilities and destinations, and sold them over the counter. Nowadays, consumers themselves have turned into “prosumers” with ample travel experience, providing their own content. In social media including photo and video portals they give feedback and they share their first-hand experiences on review and booking platforms.
Such user-generated content is a popular source of information for people interested in travelling, as they go beyond the details given by the service providers themselves. It is a modern kind of word-of-mouth propaganda that may have major influence on travel decisions. “Today, each tour operator would give anything to have a positive review because tourists read them before confirming their booking”, says Cyprien Semushi of Lobelia Tours in Rwanda.
Reviews by guests can be a measure of customer satisfaction. But they usually capture only the extreme ends of the spectrum. "There are two instances where tourists give reviews: The tour was exceptionally good or remarkably bad”, says Semushi. It is mainly in those cases that tourists will take time to share their experiences online.
Dealing with criticism
Criticism voiced by guests may often be constructive if service providers take it seriously. The pressure has very much increased, says Cyprien Semushi. “One negative review may send all your business to jeopardy. But pressure also has a good side to it: It forces us to keep looking for better ways of improving our services”.
Raj Gyawali, founder of the tour operator Socialtours in Kathmandu, Nepal considers a bad review just as valuable as a good one. “It’s an opportunity to explain yourself and how human the business actually is. The response is important, that does everything.” He also has trust in people’s ability to realistically assess the reviews posted by other tourists: “No one believes a perfect track record and people are generally sceptical of really bad reviews, as they also know some people are a bit off.”
The trend towards image cultivation
”Sometimes it is more about the tourists’ own reputation“, says Mariana Madureira who does a PhD in Brazil on this subject. ”Some people really make an effort to build a photo gallery, to get rewarded for reviews and have a map full of "visited spots". Some platforms have gamification mechanisms that make people want to compete for status proof. My guess is that some people review only to get rated. They don’t bring in relevant information.”
“As AirBnB reviews are open (different from Uber, for example, where only the rate is open) I think tourists feel bad to be completely honest and tend to be nicer. On AirBnB, hosts and visitors cannot hide behind nicknames. On Tripadvisor, anyone can write reviews anonymously.” Anonymous reviews allow people to write whatever they want, without being held accountable. This opens the floodgates to manipulation.
The danger of fake reviews
The influence of reviews may be decisive and may “make or break” businesses by strengthening or affecting their reputation. The latter is particularly so in the case of fake reviews or those that are formulated in a provoking or insulting manner and that are meant to be damaging.
„Some may be biased or even bought,” says Cyprien Semushi, though he has no personal experiences of that kind, but heard of instances where tourists complained to the tour operator only to get a refund. “Of course” – says Raj Gyawali – has he had problems with fake reviews. “Someone who never booked a trip with us posted a review with false accusations. But that's also part of it. It's okay.”
In Mongolia, Zanjan Fromer of Ger to Ger has been fighting a fierce open battle against scammers and cyber-trolls. ”Travel scammers hurt everyone,“ says Fromer. The “unethical competition” under which his company has suffered also affects the nomad families Ger to Ger works with.
Expectations and priorities
It is even more important to deal with online reviews in a responsible manner – in writing reviews and when reading them. There may be commercial interests behind reviews – or real experiences of travellers. Discontent tends to result from unmet expectations, which may be very subjective, though. In Kerala, India, Kabani Community Tourism and Services have benefitted from relying on a referral system, with guests personally knowing someone who has experienced one of Kabani’s programmes before. “This helps to set the expectations right for the guests and reduces cultural shocks,” says Sreejith Nair of Kabani. “So we hardly get any negative feedback.”
As subjective as the expectations are the different priorities of travellers, reflected in the aspects that find their ways into reviews at all. “In my experience, tourists rate the guide’s ability and skills to entertain them, rather than on what the tour offers,” says Cyprien Semushi. Service providers often find that guests rate aspects that may not matter much to them. “That happens all the time”, says Raj Gyawali. “But that’s okay. It’s the diversity of reviews and points that make up the matrix of image that is made about a company. That’s the important bit.”