By Martin Kelly, Editor, Travel Trends 

Get the truth, then go… So says TripAdvisor, without question the fastest-growing and most influential travel community on the planet. In the past year the number of TripAdvisor members – people who post reviews about their holiday experience – has grown from five million to nine million.

The number of reviews they have posted – which are not qualified, by the way – now exceeds 20 million. But can the rants and raves of this community be regarded as the truth?Of course not! The reviews are opinion, in many cases from people you normally wouldn’t give the time of day.

But as a believer in the wisdom of crowds, I recently used TripAdvisor to get some feedback on Yasawa Island Resort & Spa in Fiji. As usual the experience was disconcerting. I find the often jarring disparity between many reviews for the same property more confusing than enlightening, and once again this was the case for Yasawa. However the positive reviews far outweighed the few negatives, and I knew of a well-known journalist who visits there regularly. So we took a punt and booked, getting an industry rate rather than the USD800 plus per day the resort normally charges.

As it turned out Yasawa Island Resort & Spa didn’t meet the expectations of my wife and I. We cut our stay short, leaving after just three nights. I was annoyed on a number of fronts, not least being duped by the TripAdvisor “community”. Back in Sydney, I decided to get involved and signed up as a TripAdvisor member. I had joined the crowd and was offering it my wisdom. I posted a review on Yasawa, giving it a two-star rating (out of five). I didn’t want others to experience our disappointment. Having taken this step I was also interested to see if my thoughts were echoed by other travellers – were the positive reviews being displaced by negative thoughts?

I checked back with TripAdvisor every week or so, and saw the reviews of Yasawa become increasingly critical. In fact the past 10 reviews have been the worst ever for the resort, averaging 3.2 stars. But there were still radical variations. Over the past six weeks there have been four five-star ratings, one four star rating, three two star ratings and two one star ratings. Seems like the kind of place you either love or hate. Maybe.

Exhibit 1: “I read the incredibly positive 3 latest posts and we simply cannot believe them. The staff is indeed nice but the management completely absent … food is average … it is a pity because the island, the beaches and waters are among the most beautiful we’ve ever seen but the price to stay here is completely out of proportion to what you get. Again, we really blame the management which was not even present and couldn’t train the local staff to the basic needs.” Trillo, Milan, January 10, 2009.

Exhibit 2: “Yasawa Island Resort is amazing. There is no better place on earth to unwind and relax. The staff are happy and gentle and provide a wonderful cultural experience. We found our bungalow to be very private massive in size, well furnished and with magnificent sea views. The dining experience was good, the meal portions were not excessive, which is great in the tropics. Fresh seafood including lobsters was a memorable feature. Management staff were very friendly and did their utmost to accommodate every request. We will definitely be back.” IslandHopper747, Melbourne, December 25, 2008. This review was posted on Christmas Day!

Then follow another three glowing reviews, absolutely five stars all the way (“incredible beaches, so many shells, so little time”) before the string goes negative again, in quite a big way with a series of poor reviews. For example: “I just can’t believe this resort still gets good reviews. My wife and I went to 3 resorts on our honeymoon (Matangi, Namale, Yasawa), and Yasawa was the only disappointment. The setting is beautiful, but the stunning beach and clear blue water can’t make up for lousy service, old rooms and terrible management.”

Another wrote: “Yasawa Island Resort was a dreadful experience … The food was lackluster (sic) at best and though there is a good wine list there is no server who knows anything about it.”

Then there was this: “Honestly, we’re very very surprised/disappointed at the positive reviews this place has gotten. What a nightmare! We checked in, and within 12 hours wanted to check back out! We had just spent 5 days at the incredible Liku Liku (a real 5 star resort) before checking into this disaster of a resort. The service was bad, the food was terrible (gas station food on a good day), and the rooms were…well, several years old and probably untouched since they were built.”

And then it’s all positive again. In fact the reviews from 11 through to 30 are around 90% five star. So, the big question, how to interpret all this? The simple answer is it’s simply not possible without a great deal of effort. If you did have the time, detailed analysis would show that:

 The last 10 reviews (posted between December 1, 2008, to January 10, 2009) had an average rating of 3.2
 Reviews 11 – 20 (posted between November 26, 2007, and October 16, 2008) had an average rating of 4.6
 Reviews 21 – 30 (posted between April 9, 2007, and November 19, 2007) average a rating of 4.4

These findings reveal several things, most notably that if the reviews are to be taken seriously, Yasawa is a resort on the slide, something that was not obvious to us when we booked our trip in mid-November. It’s also interesting to note that the frequency of postings has increased along with apparent dissatisfaction levels: 10 reviews in the past six weeks, which works out to more than one a week. Compare that to the previous 10 reviews, which were posted over a 13 month period.

Clearly people feel more compelled to write when they have had a poor experience, probably to vent but also to warn others. Holidays are expensive, particularly at places like Yasawa, and no-one likes to feel they have wasted thousands of dollars, especially when they have considered then dismissed other alternatives. 

The poor reviews then appear to provide impetus for happy guests (or others, perhaps?) to respond in praise of the property in question.

Another point is – at least in the case of Yasawa – that the negative reviewers often reference the positive reviews (“I can’t believe people still like this place”) while the positive reviewers make no reference to the negative comments. I wonder why? It seems a little strange, don’t you think, give the personal nature of the site. 

In fact, the whole thing is all a little hard to decipher. Just like people.

When TripAdvisor first burst on the scene it seemed like the answer – a reference tool that would help travellers find the gold in a big pile of dirt. Yet it hasn’t worked out that way, with reviews often raising more questions than answers. Or maybe Col. Jessep, Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, got it right when he said:

“You want the truth – You can’t handle the truth!”

That’s because – when it comes to travel – there is no such thing.

(PS: Since this story was researched and written, a flurry of positive Yasawa reviews have appeared on TripAdvisor, as usual following some negativity.) 

Travel Trends: January 19, 2009


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