'The #1 Fake Travel Guide on Amazon'

Richard Turen

As they begin their important prep work for an upcoming trip, travelers have three sources they often turn to for valued information. Sadly, one thought to be credible has just been revealed to be seriously tainted.

Many travelers, perhaps most, will begin with a Google search. They will do this because our industry has been too frightened to provide a rational analysis of the reasons consumers should avoid online travel sites. We know that anything appearing on a for-profit website that purports to publish “reader comments” may well be tainted with reviews bought and paid for as well as “payment back in kind” reviews by online writers who received free trips. 

The second potential source of valuable information is a professional travel advisor. A great one is the best possible source, but you and I know that finding a great travel advisor can be an iffy proposition at best because there are also wannabes who view our profession to be “like real estate, but with travel bennies.”

The better advisors are under the umbrella of a legacy host or agency group, learning from masters of the travel crafts. But far too many “agents” are totally unqualified to give objective advice on health, safety and other important issues related to worldwide destinations. They include independent contractors who have never had the opportunity to learn under the kind of supervision, guidance and training typical of people employed in other serious consulting roles.

There is, finally, the popular third source of information: Just find the right destination guidebook titles on Amazon and learn all that you can. And that was fine … until last month, when the New York Times travel desk decided to have a look at recent developments in that area. For the 920th time in my life, the Times scooped me. They did a comprehensive deep dive into the current crop of best-selling travel guides on Amazon. Here is what they found:

In searching for “travel guidebook France” the Times team was brought to a display page with several noted titles. One of the most highly rated was “The France Travel Guide” by “renowned travel writer” Mike Steves. Interestingly, “Mike’s” book received more than 100 five-star ratings. Price: $16.99. The respected travel writer Rick Steves also has a guide to France. His sells for $25.49. Perhaps because people like bargains — as well as the surname “Steves” — Mike Steves has quickly become one of the world’s best-selling travel writers.

Unfortunately, Mike S. cannot take personal pride in his recent ascension to the top of the travel guidebook heap because, as the Times reported, he does not exist. In fact, it’s possible that the travel content in his best-selling books was not written by a human being.

As the Times’ Seth Kugel and Stephen Hiltner summarize their investigation, there is “A New Frontier for Travel Scammers: A.I.-Generated Guidebooks.”

It turns out that when intelligent travelers try to find a destination guidebook on Amazon, they are being led, by reviews and price, to shoddy collections of self-published content created by AI programs and supported by some of the best reviews you have ever seen.

AI can easily give the fake writer a background and identity. They can use stock photos and phrases such as “The #1 Travel Guide to Hong Kong.”

Do you, by chance, have any clients headed to Paris during the next year? Your clients may end up with “Everything You Need to Know Before Plan a Trip to Paris.” Putting “Everything You Need to Know” into a title is extremely popular, and one has to imagine that the author, Stuart Hartley, may actually make more money writing than I do.

The Times found more than 10 other best-selling titles attributed to Hartley. He is extremely successful for someone who does not appear to exist.
As the Times investigation shows, Amazon is, by a very wide margin, the No. 1 source for travel destination books. And, it turns out, many of its best-selling titles, are “written” by AI algorithms, without the annoyance of human intervention.

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