Fake reviews adding baggage to travel industry
TRAVEL sometimes comes with more baggage than you planned.
It can take the form of a groaning credit card or a catalogue of tummy bugs that take ages to eradicate.
Or it can be the relentless stalking of online travel outfits that somehow think that just because you were in some foreign city last month you desperately need to know this week's bargains.
At least once a day I receive emails from one booking organisation offering me the very best of last year's vacation.
Because we hired a car in Scotland last year, a rental firm gives me at least a weekly update on prevailing rates.
Unsubscribe, you say, but I genuinely do want to remain on the books so I can use the account for pain-free reservations and, just maybe, get a genuine discount next time we hire some wheels.
These are the among the downsides to online travel planning which is turning the industry on its head.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show than in year ended in May Australians made an astounding 10,715,500 international trips.
The top three destinations were New Zealand, the United States and Indonesia (hello Bali, I guess).
The Australian Federation of Travel Agents reckons 70 per cent of those travellers book at least one part of their journey through an agent.
That means that a hefty 30 per cent of Australian travellers either fly by the seat of their pants or do their own planning and bookings using online facilities.
I suspect the travel agency trade has had to lift its game in the face of such competition (and more than few shonks) and its hold on 70 per cent of the trade suggests it has been pretty successful.
It would certainly have to do better than it did not so many decades back when a youngster prowling through a brochure counted as a professional adviser.
(I remember spending a day in a cell in the Slovakian boondocks after following the visa advice of an American Express agent about 30 years ago.)
But, with time up my sleeve and quite a bit of experience behind me, I really like planning and booking online.
It's a tasty challenge, with the added piquancy of the prospect of a night in a bus depot if you foul it up.
However, just as travel agencies had to get their acts together so too does the online arm of the business.
The industry is an incestuous and confusing octopus of cross-ownerships that is impossible to follow without a program but it is dominated by half a dozen or so biggies.
Among them is TripAdvisor which pioneered user-generated content and is "supported by a hotel booking facility and an advertising business model'', according to Wikipedia.
If not first cab off the rank, it would be among the sources many of the 3 million or so independent Australian travellers consult before plonking down their hard-earned.
Even those who take their business to a travel agent would probably dip their toes into such a river of information.
You learn to read the code in the customer reviews and usually discover the truth lies somewhere between the open-mouthed admiration of those for whom running water is a novelty and those who expect Nubian slaves and baths overflowing with asses' milk.
But if it is compromised by deliberate dishonesty it becomes a lesser traveller's aid.
Over the years it has been the subject of complaints around the world, usually as the result of fraudulent or misleading reviews but it has also been accused on at least one occasion of deleting adverse reviews.
However, when it does come a cropper it is usually the unwitting victim of dodgy or concocted "user-generated" reviews.
In Australian a few years back an overenthusiastic hotel PR man was pinged for writing multiple uncomplimentary reviews of his client's competitors.
And this week, TripAdvisor was revealed as being stiffed by apartment giant Meriton which was found guilty in the Federal Court of breaching consumer law by manipulating or "masking" reviews that were sent to TripAdvisor (or were supposed to be sent there).
That cost it a cool $3 million in fines and, I guess, every so slightly diminished TripAdvisor's cred.
This might sound like a curiosity of corporate life but it is an issue of vital importance to the online industry and to the millions who use it.
And nowhere more so than in Australia where we are notoriously nomadic and spend more than $40 billion a year on overseas travel, according to Austrade.
If "fake news" is doing its bit to diminish faith in the real thing, so too are fake travel reviews that mislead those who try to exploit the amazing advantages of the internet.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which laid the charges against Meriton, could become the travellers' best friend.
Terry Sweetman is a Courier-Mail columnist.