Images of Petra

Who were the Nabataeans?

Imagine what would happen if a bunch of wheeler-dealer nomads, with some seriously incredible ideas about hydraulics, decided to create a capital city amid a hidden canyon to protect and run their spice trading empire from.

Think about the work it must have taken to chisel 40m-high facades into sheer stone and the engineering wizardry of the channel system of terracotta pipes that brought water into the city.

Remember that what you see today is just the monuments, temples and tombs that have withstood 2000 years. This was once a living, breathing empire’s capital that managed to maintain its independence even as the might of the Roman Empire gobbled up the Middle East.

That was who the Nabataeans were.

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For more information on visiting Petra you can read my recent story on hiking Petra’s Bedouin back trails for BBC Travel.

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On the good, the bad, and the just plain dumb of Trip Advisor

Back in December 2000 when I was stuck without a bed amid a torrential downpour in Cusco, I would have loved a Trip Advisor-style service to suddenly burst onto the internet scene. Instead, with all the hotels listed in the guidebooks full and the scribbled names of places passed on from other travellers also booked solid, I trudged wet and miserable through the back alleys of Cusco for five hours, with my backpack, trying to find a room.

Travelling days like this seem to now be a thing of the past. Trip Advisor has been at the forefront of a new travel industry wave – giving travellers more easy access and choice than ever before. It’s not surprising that travellers have responded enthusiastically and joined in; rating restaurants, hotels, activities and sights in a free-for-all reviewing frenzy.

I’ve got no beef to grind with the internet’s tourism giant. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a guidebook replacement but I do think it can be a useful medium for people to use in conjunction with one. Unlike a guidebook, hindered by page count restraints and publishing schedules, Trip Advisor has space for every hotel and restaurant in town to be featured. And thanks to the right-up-to-the-minute wonder of the Internet all those new hotels and restaurants manage to start building reputations long before the next guidebook author is due in town.  It should be a win-win situation for all sides.

But it’s not.

Of course everyone realises that many hotels and restaurants often post fake positive reviews on their Trip Advisor sites. But there’s a far more insidious and damaging side to the Trip Advisor fake review game.

In a town I know well, one person is making good money by creating fake Trip Advisor reviews and forum posts for local hotels and restaurants. For the princely sum of US$165 this person will not only post fake positive reviews and forum posts about their client’s business, but also nastily post fake negative reviews on the sites of three of their major competitors.  This is a small town which lives and breathes tourism. It’s the main industry there and competition between hotels and restaurants is already ridiculously high. So what happened when this Trip Advisor entrepreneur started broadcasting their services for sale? Well Hotel A used this service and got more positive reviews meaning that their Trip Advisor rating shot up. They also managed to make their main competition Hotel B have a lower rating than them because of the fake negative reviews this person posted.

Now Hotel B and Hotel C, D, E and F then got wind of this new service and felt like they had no choice but to join in. Otherwise maybe Hotel G, H, I and J were going to use it and go up higher in the Trip Advisor ratings than them. So this person made (and is making) a killing after feeding paranoia to Hotels A through to Z.

Not nice is it. But it does explain how in this town, a fairly new hotel has managed to get over 100 reviews despite being open less than a year while another hotel (who hasn’t yet used this service) has fewer than 100 reviews but has been open for five years.

I guarantee that this isn’t the only town across the world this is happening in. You put a tool like Trip Advisor out into the world and there’s always going to be someone who tries to cheat the system. The trouble is that Trip Advisor doesn’t police their site sturdily enough for people playing the system like this to get caught. Anyone can create a few different user names, log in and begin writing a bunch of bullshit. And some people, with unscrupulous morals, are going to start charging for it.

On a funnier note there’s another reason why travellers shouldn’t take everything on Trip Advisor at face value. This is a REAL review for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Göreme National Park by Trip Advisor Senior Reviewer Marcia58 (note the fact that she’s what is called a ‘senior reviewer’ hence supposedly more trustworthy with her reviews) :

“This is disappointing to hike. What seems to be the best areas are closed to the public. There are some nice views if you have a car. I took one short hike and turned back due to flies and nothing much to see. I’d skip it.”

Yeah Marcia58, I agree. It really is terribly disappointing:

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