In the age of globalization, our planet is shrinking. Not only are people searching further and in greater numbers for that elusive grail of cultural experience and authenticity, but they're doing so with a suite of new tools with the power, like other magical entities, to be used for both good and evil. I'm talking, of course, about travel websites and apps.
Like most, I've used online booking tools for years. I have rarely read — nor had need for — reviews, as this has usually been a case of me purchasing something I required for work and knew what I already needed to know. Like walking into Mark's Work Wearhouse to buy cargo shorts: Oh, here's three that fit, two colours I can live with, and one with the right price. Straightforward. That all changed when my partner and I headed to Southeast Asia in November for a five-month trip during which we organized 90 per cent of our travel — visas, transport, accommodation, attractions, food — on-the-go through our phones or computer.
The facility with which we were able to do so surprised us, and in many cases (like border crossings and currency availability) proved far easier than what discussion threads on travel blogs inferred was possible.
It wasn't because the threads were outdated, but because things are changing so fast on the ground in Asia — fast enough in some places to watch it happen. With none of the regulatory or stepping-on-toes issues common to North American tourism, a fiercely competitive (albeit oversaturated) market means they are way ahead of us on many fronts.
Although bandwidth varies between countries, free Wi-Fi is available everywhere, from public networks in whole towns and vast temple complexes to the tiniest back-alley eatery or mountain aerie. This because they must; if you don't have Wi-Fi your business is toast for today's traveller, with the major growth demographic being international Millennials and Internet-hungry, selfie-stick-armed Chinese. (It's amazing to think some North American hotels still charge for a service more fundamental than television.)
Digital availability was one aspect, but another that loomed large was ratings and reviews. Once we went down that rabbit hole, it sucked up time faster than a Star Trek warp drive. Fairly soon we weren't just looking at a place on Hotels.com, but triangulating reviews between Expedia, Booking.com, the all-Asian site Agoda, and the kingpin of opinion, TripAdvisor. I'd barely heard of TripAdvisor before we started this trip (now I notice it in every window in Whistler), and though it was at times indispensible, it was also, as most trends become, sometimes too ubiquitous and too powerful for its own good.
TripAdvisor offers two things, both determined using proprietary algorithms: one is a Popularity Index rank or relative measure of popularity derived by comparing similar businesses and other places of interest by quality, quantity, and recency of content concerning them; the other is a 1–5 bubble rating that takes the same things into account, can be broken into ratings distribution, type of travel (e.g. business or family), aspects of a business (e.g. service or cleanliness) but which, unlike the Popularity Index, is an absolute measure of quality. The utility of both is high for travellers, but can be yin-yang in the make-or-break world of the service industry. Fortunately, businesses also benefit from TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence that honours accommodations, attractions and eateries that demonstrate a consistent commitment to "hospitality excellence," and the annual Travellers' Choice Award, the highest honour the site can bestow.
So where did this get us as travellers? The TripAdvisor phone app was great for finding out what was goodish and nearby, but also led to scenes of buses disgorging people into new destinations where they'd fanned out like zombies following the Google maps link to wherever they were headed, phone held out front like Spock's Tricorder. Further annoyingly, you'd often get restaurants blowing up their outdated Certificate of Excellence to the size of a window to attract customers, and the neighbouring restaurant blowing their equally outdated certificate up to the size of a phone booth in response, making it hard to know what was legit.
If you read reviews on less-regulated hotel-booking sites you quickly notice abuse of the system by proprietors and minions making up names and origins to high-rate their own businesses. This isn't as big a problem on TripAdvisor but the site still produces rankings that can make anyone go, What? For instance, if I sort reviews for Whistler attractions by "friends," I find dozens of people who live in this town unashamedly promoting things with a 5-bubble rating, not exactly objective (for shits and giggles I logged in to downlist the Valley Trail due to its dog problem, but its well-deserved 5-out-of-5 rating didn't budge).
It's a brave new world people. You can't argue with computer algorithms, but you can further refine, say, a Top 5 or Top 10 list by actually asking locals about the entries. Imagine! I think this talking to people thing might be a whole new frontier in travelling.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.