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TripAdvisor, Popularity, and Travelling *on* the Beaten Track

While traveling through Vietnam, it quickly became apparent that TripAdvisor was at the heart of the Vietnamese tourism economy. Every single restaurant we visited would hand us a business card with our waiter’s name and the plea to “write something nice on TripAdvisor as soon as possible”. The same request was received from every hotel we visited, tour guide we used, and shop we purchased anything from. A few websites I visited while doing research even stated that they give their staff bonuses for every positive review that mentions them by name. It’s a crazy world of a saturated tourist market and the desperation to do anything to get to the top of the rankings.

I’ve been using TripAdvisor for a few years now, trusting it to help guide me towards the best hotels and attractions in locations I’m visiting. I don’t trust hotel websites, but I do trust other people’s reviews. It’s pretty easy to weed out the whingers and whiners and see what the honest majority are saying. So far, trusting TripAdvisor hasn’t steered me wrong.

While researching an activity the other day, however, I stumbled across a blog post in which the author bemoaned TripAdvisor and all who used it as just giving in to what’s popular and not getting the “true” travel experience. It baffled me a bit, because there’s a reason activities and hotels and attractions are highly rated on TripAdvisor: it’s not for fun, it’s because they are (generally) the best options available. And sure, as more people travel and TripAdvisor becomes more popular the activities will become busier and every man and his dog will have a picture from there on their Instagram profile, but especially if it’s your first time in a location, you shouldn’t miss out on a visit just because everybody else is going there too. It reminded me of a passage in The DaVinci Code, which I first read years ago while in Florence after my first ever trip to Paris (and therefore The Louvre):

most tourists chose an abbreviated experience Langdon referred to as “Louvre Lite” — a full sprint through the museum to see the three most famous objects: the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory.

I remember laughing about it with my parents at the time, because that’s exactly what we’d done the week before. But of course, it wasn’t because we wanted to be Basic Tourists missing the true Louvre experience – it was because we only had so much time in Paris (much less at the Louvre) and those were the three pieces we didn’t want to miss. Once we’d seen all three, we spent a bit more time exploring the museum but there’s only so much of it you can see in a single visit, anyway. In the nine years since that visit, I’ve been lucky enough to go back to the Louvre on multiple occasions, and have had the luxury of taking my time and exploring a lot more of the museum. But when you’re a tourist and in a hurry to try and make the most of your time, it’s more important for most people to tick off the Big Name highlights before they take the time to explore off the beaten path. Your friends and family would think you were a bit of a tool if you come back from a trip to Paris and didn’t get a picture of the Eiffel Tower, or back from London without seeing Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.

Everybody has different goals when traveling, and there are some people who relish in avoiding well populated areas and discovering sites untouched by mainstream tourism. And good on them – it’s the kind of travel I wish I was brave enough to do! But there’s no use tearing down what is an extremely useful travel tool for 99% of the traveling population just because it makes seeing the world too mainstream for your tastes.

Travel is for having fun, no matter how you choose to do it. Let’s all encourage others to have the best possible experience and, enable them to head out into the world armed with the most accurate tips and knowledge.

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