These are the choke marks that an 18-year-old South African au pair says she suffered after being drugged and raped at a Sandals-owned beaches resort in Jamaica on July 4, 2018. She says Sandals paid her American host family $25,000 and silenced them with a non-disclosure agreement (Photo: South African au pair)

In the wake of mounting public pressure and a Free Press investigation, international travel giant TripAdvisor will now flag sexual assault warnings on reviews, making it easier to find out which hotels and resorts have been cited for sex crimes at the hands of employees.

Rather than have to dig through tens of millions of hotel reviews in search of rape complaints, TripAdvisor users will now be able to click through a filter on each property to see if there are any reviews with safety warnings involving rapes, robberies or druggings.

The new safety measure, which was announced on Tuesday, comes months after a Detroit Free Press investigation found that sexual assaults are a long-standing and unchecked problem in Jamaica and that several resorts have tried to cover it up. Multiple victims spoke to the paper about confidentiality agreements and payoffs by resorts, and reported their assaults on TripAdvisor — though the negative reviews were buried deep on the website and difficult to find.

That won’t be the case anymore, says TripAdvisor, noting it did some digging of its own after the Free Press investigation and made an alarming discovery: In the last year alone, TripAdvisor found 1,100 reviews that referenced sexual assault claims by travelers worldwide.

Hotel Riu Reggae is a all-inclusive adults only hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
 (Photo: RIU Hotels and Resorts)

“When your article hit, we started re-evaluating our policies,” said TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt, noting the 1,100 reviews citing sexual assault raised eyebrows. “One incident is horrible — 1,100 is horrific. Having read through many of these accounts, it really motivated us at TripAdvisor to make sure we do right by these survivors and help them find a way to share this information with others.”

Hoyt added: “Your article is a case study for why we are doing what we are doing.”

The Free Press investigation also triggered an island-wide security audit of resorts in Jamaica, which is expected to be completed in June.

Petition demands change, gains support 

Also facilitating change at TripAdvisor is the mounting public pressure over its review platform illustrated by a petition this week, demanding it make sexual assault warnings more visible to users on its website.

An estimated 500,000 people signed the petition on behalf of a woman named Kay, who said she was raped by a tour guide who came with stellar reviews on TripAdvisor.

After the attack, Kay tried to warn future tourists by leaving a review on the tour guide’s TripAdvisor business page. But her reviews were deleted, she said, and her emails to TripAdvisor received no response for weeks.

A petition drive followed.

“The world’s largest travel site shouldn’t recommend women hire rapists for their next vacation,” said in a statement. “TripAdvisor needs to know that Kay isn’t giving up until they make meaningful changes.”

TripAdvisor does not recommend or rank businesses; all of that is done by users who visit the site.

On Wednesday, officials planned to deliver Kay’s signatures to TripAdvisor’s office in New York.

TripAdvisor said it has offered to help Kay get her story out.

“We offered Kay to write a review, she turned it down,” said Hoyt, TripAdvisor’s spokesperson.

According to Hoyt, TripAdvisor took down Kay’s first review because it was not written in the first-person, but rather in the third-person. Company policy requires that if people want to write reviews, good or bad, they have to be first-hand experiences, not someone else saying they heard “this or that” happened to someone on vacation: that amounts to hearsay. 

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