How would you review a hotel that tried to send you to prison?
An American man who criticized a Thai resort in a series of bitter online reviews could soon wind up behind bars, after the resort sued him under Thailand‘s harsh defamation laws.
Wesley Barnes, an American ex-pat living in Thailand, is accused of damaging the reputation of Sea View Koh Chang resort with his reviews, which compared the hotel to “modern slavery” and the coronavirus.
“The Sea View Resort owner filed a complaint that the defendant had posted unfair reviews on his hotel on the TripAdvisor website,” Col. Thanapon Taemsara of Koh Chang police told AFP.
Immigration police briefly arrested Barnes earlier this month and later released him on bail.
The case stems from an incident at the Sea View Koh Chang resort in June. Barnes and some friends paid a visit to the resort on a domestic tourist trip, amid a decline in tourism due to COVID-19.
Barnes tried to bring his own gin into a restaurant at the resort, then argued with the staff over a $15 corking fee, the New York Times reports. The dispute escalated into a blow-out with the restaurant manager and later boiled over onto the internet, where Barnes wrote a series of blistering reviews on TripAdvisor and Google.
“Unfriendly staff, no one ever smiles. They act like they don’t want anyone there,” Barnes wrote in one review, which was still live on TripAdvisor Monday morning.
“The restaurant manager was the worst. He is from the Czech Republic. He is extremely rude and impolite to guests. Find another place. There are plenty with nicer staff that are happy you are staying with them.”
Tom Storup, the resort’s room division manager, responded to that review by accusing Barnes of trying to “defame” the manager and the resort. He also accused Barnes of using “abusive language” toward the woman who told him about the corking fee, and added that the fee was ultimately waived.
“It was to our surprise that even after all the disruption you caused and our gesture of allowing you to drink your own bottle of liquor at our restaurant you still decided to write negative reviews on all possible review sites,” Storup wrote on June 19. Storup is not the manager with whom Barnes had a problem, the resort says.
Barnes wrote multiple reviews complaining about the same issue, according to travel blogger Richard Barrow, who first highlighted the case on Saturday.
“Avoid this place as if it was the coronavirus!” one review said. Another review described working conditions at the hotel as “modern slavery.”
Barnes claimed in a statement that he wrote “a review” after witnessing a “master/slave mentality” between the manager and a staff member.
“I used the phrase ‘modern slavery,'” Barnes wrote in the statement to Barrow. “It was not nice by any means but it made my point and how I felt about the situation there.”
He added that he ignored the resort’s promise of legal action because he thought they were empty threats.
“We are not suing him for just a single bad review,” resort management said in a lengthy statement to Barrow, which he has since posted online.
The resort accused Barnes of “fabricating” stories with “xenophobic connotations, accusations of slavery and even comments that could mislead readers to associate our property with the coronavirus.”
Management says they filed the complaint as a “deterrent” because Barnes had been attacking the resort online for weeks, and they feared he would continue to do so “for the foreseeable future.”
“We agree that using a defamation law may be viewed as excessive for this situation,” the resort wrote. However, it says the suit was the only way to get a response from Barnes.
“Despite our multiple efforts to contact him to resolve this in an amicable way for well over a month, he chose to ignore us completely,” the resort said. It adds that Barnes finally answered after the complaint was filed.
TripAdvisor says it locked the resort’s page due to the media attention and “an influx of review submissions that do not describe a first-hand experience.”
Thailand has been accused of enforcing draconian laws around public speech in recent years. Last winter, for example, a Thai journalist was sentenced to two years behind bars for tweeting about working conditions at a major chicken farm.
Anyone who criticizes Thailand’s king can also face up to 15 years in prison.
Barnes faces a maximum of two years in prison and a US$6,300 fine if convicted on the charges.