For Kristie Love, reporting a rape by a security guard at a Mexican resort was like yelling into the wind. She kept repeating her story, she said, but the words had little effect.
The resort, the Iberostar Paraiso Maya in Playa del Carmen, quickly turned matters stemming from the Oct. 19, 2010, incident over to its insurance company, which emailed Love with a warning that because her allegations had not been proven, any effort to share her story on a public or private website “could be construed as a crime itself” and that she could be prosecuted for lost income resulting from her “defamation or blackmailing,” according to an email provided by Love that was sent by Carlos Amézcua-Siniestros, of the firm Willis Mexico.
The threat prompted Love to return to Mexico to file a police report. According to a copy of an email Love provided to The New York Times, the U.S. Consulate informed her five months later that it had been told that police were going to issue a warrant to compel the hotel to provide photos of its security staff, since it had failed to do so voluntarily. It is unclear if that happened, but by June 2011, the consulate informed Love that many of the state officials had changed and there was no progress in the investigation.
Love said that her goal throughout was to have the security guard fired and, when that did not happen, to warn other women. That, she said, was why she tried repeatedly to post her experience on a TripAdvisor forum in late 2010. Although she included references to the police investigation, as well as her conversations with the U.S. Consulate, TripAdvisor repeatedly silenced her, deleting her post for violating “family-friendly” guidelines in effect at the time.
This month, after the Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee reported the trouble Love and others had in posting their allegations of sexual assault, TripAdvisor announced a new policy to flag some businesses for possible health, safety or discrimination issues. Still, Love said she remained frustrated, feeling that the review site’s decision to post its warning for only three months is “a slap in the face.”
“If your role is to educate travelers, leave it up there and let the user decide what they want to digest; what they want to hold onto; what they want to overlook,” she said.
Others have posted similar sentiments online, and travel analyst Henry H. Harteveldt said he agreed. “Even if a hotel has corrected the problem, I think the notice should be displayed for at least six months afterward,” said Harteveldt, the president of Atmosphere Research Group, based in San Francisco.
TripAdvisor did not respond to several questions regarding its new warning, which it calls a “badge,” including why “up to three months” was chosen as the time frame; what a business could do to have the badge taken down before three months; and whether TripAdvisor would make any effort to verify the allegations before posting the banner, which reads: “TripAdvisor has been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning this property which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing. Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans.”
TripAdvisor has also said it might keep posts up longer than three months if issues persisted but has not said how it would confirm whether a problem had been corrected.
Love said she was “a bit torn” because so many victims of sexual assault have a hard time reporting it, but, “I would understand” if TripAdvisor wanted proof, such as a police report.
Harteveldt said he thought TripAdvisor had an obligation to verify the authenticity of an assertion before a badge was posted and to confirm resolution of the complaint before it was removed. “As the owner of the site where people are posting reviews, TripAdvisor should take on the responsibility to check with hotels. Doing so would actually be good for both consumers and TripAdvisor itself. That’s because TripAdvisor is so strong, it would likely bring more force to hotels to correct the sources of their problems,” he said.
Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, based in Spain, said in a statement that because of the recent news reports, it had “undertaken another comprehensive review of the situation raised by Ms. Love,” including reviewing records and interviewing those who assisted her in 2010. Iberostar and Love have different recollections of what happened seven years ago. Love said she “begged” the lobby staff to call the police, and they refused, offering instead to call a taxi to take her to the hospital.
Iberostar said the staff offered “all assistance possible,” recommended she file a police report and “offered to accompany her to the appropriate police station.”
Iberostar said it feels the badges that TripAdvisor posted on two of its Playa del Carmen resorts last week — the Iberostar Paraiso Maya and the adjacent Iberostar Paraiso Lindo — are unfair because “there is no evidence in any manner substantiating the allegations that have been made.”
Asked about whether it provided a photo lineup for the investigation into Love’s complaint, the company replied: “Iberostar is seeking more details about the specific points you have raised. However, as you might understand, the lengthy passage of time complicates the ability to look into your questions.”
“With regard to the statement attributed to an insurance company that allegedly communicated with Ms. Love, Iberostar strongly disapproves of the implied threat to Ms. Love for speaking out,” the company’s statement said.
Willis Mexico has since merged with Towers Watson, and the new company had no comment, said Josh Wozman, a spokesman for Willis Towers Watson.
The other property flagged last week by TripAdvisor, the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, said internal and police reviews turned up no evidence to support an allegation made by a man to the Journal Sentinel that he was drugged and sexually assaulted while receiving a spa treatment.
“We have provided thorough documentation to TripAdvisor for their committee to re-evaluate the badge’s placement and look forward to seeing its removal shortly,” said Megan Sterritt, a spokeswoman for the resort.
In announcing its new badge Nov. 8, TripAdvisor said that it would be based on news reports as well as comments from the TripAdvisor community. That was quickly revised to focus on media reports, along with other qualifications, including whether the allegation being made was against a resort employee, whether the issue was current and whether any recent reviews mentioned it, a company spokesman, Kevin Carter, said.
“As with any new product we roll out, we know that we’ll need to make adjustments and refine the process,” Carter said. “In fact, we’re already considering a couple of changes, which we’ll be happy to share at the appropriate time. We take our trusted position in the travel community very seriously and we’ll continue to strive to earn that trust.” TripAdvisor did not respond when asked if sexual harassment of employees would also be grounds for a badge, but as of Nov. 14, the Plaza Hotel in New York did not have one. It is being sued by six former and current staff members who claim they were sexually harassed by male co-workers, including “unwanted groping, kissing and repulsive sexual remarks ... all while Plaza management ignored their complaints and retaliated against them,” according to an Aug. 8 story on the website TMZ.
Also as of Nov. 14, there was no badge on the Esperanza in Cabos San Lucas, Mexico, despite a lawsuit filed against its parent company, Auberge Resorts, by a woman who claims that it was negligent in the hiring of a waiter whom she accused of sexually assaulting her after sneaking into her bedroom a year ago. In a story on Nov. 10, the San Jose Mercury News reported that “the lawsuit includes screenshots of sexually suggestive Facebook posts from the waiter’s public account, including one from May 2015 in which he wrote: ‘I love being the bad guy that everyone falls in love with, and if I admit it, I have no heart, however, I have perversion.’”
Auberge Resorts, based in Mill Valley, California, told the paper that it did not comment on pending litigation but was taking the matter seriously.
As for whether TripAdvisor could have potential liability if a traveler were assaulted, Benjamin C. Zipursky, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, said that it was unlikely because a website’s ability to edit posts is protected by both state law and federal statute. One lawyer said that it was travel agents who had “a legal duty to warn travelers of known dangers at their destinations, unless the problem is obvious and well-reported in the general media, such as Ebola or Zika,” said Mark Pestronk, who specializes in travel law. Failure to do so is negligent, he said.
Love’s 2010 trip was booked by Apple Vacations, but she said she did not remember if she received any warnings from the company about crime in Mexico. Apple told the Journal Sentinel, “Even though Apple Vacations does not own or operate the hotels, we will be recommending that all the properties to which we send guests review their safety and security procedures and consider taking additional measures.”
Love has continued to travel and has even gone back to other parts of Mexico, relying on internet reviews and word-of-mouth to pick smaller boutique-style accommodations. But, she said, that’s in the past. Having recently heard so many voices with similar stories, she will not be returning to Mexico.