BANGKOK – He’s very, very sorry. But the hotel in Thailand, which threatened an American guest with jail for its poor ratings, could be more sorry.
Wesley Barnes, the American guest, publicly apologized Friday for his blunt online reviews of the Sea View Koh Chang Resort in Thailand. In return, the hotel promised to drop the complaint that led the authorities in Thailand to bring criminal defamation suits against him.
More than wounded pride was at stake. In Thailand, criminal defamation can result in a prison sentence of up to two years. Mr Barnes had been in prison two days after his arrest on these charges last month before bailing him.
The question now for the Sea View Resort – and for the Thai tourism industry suffering from the coronavirus freeze – is whether it can recover from the significant damage its reputation has suffered from the threat of Barnes in jail. The resort on the island of Koh Chang on Thailand’s southeast coast has been convicted online for using the country’s strict libel laws against a guest who didn’t enjoy their stay and decided to write about it.
Mr Barnes adopted a decidedly different tone on Friday in a statement filled with official stilted language reminiscent of a forced confession.
“All of the statements I’ve made are completely wrong,” the statement said. “These ratings and comments were written out of anger and malice. Now, Mr Barnes, I have regretted my actions and would like to apologize to Sea View Koh Chang and its staff. “
As requested in the settlement with the hotel, Mr. Barnes also sent the statement to news outlets covering his case, including the New York Times. He apologized “for my repeated false and untrue statements / assessments that were made to maliciously defame Sea View Koh Chang.”
Kitti Mali, the police chief of Koh Chang, whose office had brought the indictment, attended a settlement meeting on Thursday, police said.
The resort on Koh Chang Island, an hour’s flight from Bangkok, said via email that it would drop its complaint if Mr. Barnes adhered to the terms of the agreement by October 30th.
“After all conditions are met, the hotel will withdraw the charges against the perpetrator,” said Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen, deputy spokesman for the Royal Thai Police.
Mr Barnes did not respond to a request for further comment.
Mr Barnes’ arrest and filing of criminal charges last month for reviews he posted on Trip Advisor and Google alarmed many travelers who have long felt free to post dull and critical reviews online in Thailand and elsewhere.
The move also challenged the judgment of the Thai authorities to continue the criminal case just as Thailand is desperately trying to revive its tourism industry.
One of the government’s strategies is to encourage residents, including foreigners such as Mr. Barnes, who live in Thailand, to travel within the country. Tourism accounts for about a fifth of the country’s economy.
Human rights activists have long criticized Thailand’s defamation law, which can lead to criminal charges of speaking and is sometimes used by corporations to silence critics.
The dispute started in June when Mr Barnes, a hotel guest, objected to paying an excessive cork fee of $ 15 to drink from a bottle of gin he’d brought to the hotel restaurant. One manager eventually waived the fee.
Mr Barnes said in a statement following his arrest that he saw the same manager later sharply criticize an employee and concluded that “a master / slave mentality is going on”.
That inspired him to post a number of negative reviews on Trip Advisor and Google, including one where he wrote, “Avoid this place like it’s the coronavirus!”
The hotel said it had repeatedly asked him to write down the reviews and posted his own detailed counter-arguments online. The hotel said it had no choice but to go to the police after Mr Barnes ignored their requests.
An “official statement” included in the settlement agreement said that Sea View had decided in August to “protect its rights” by filing the criminal complaint.
“This decision was not made lightly by the management team,” it said.
The deal required a “sincere apology” from Mr Barnes for his reviews, including mentioning “use of slave labor, xenophobic comments against hotel staff, and multiple comparisons of the hotel to coronavirus and website platforms”.
In his statement, Mr. Barnes thanked the hotel for allowing it to avoid prison.
“The hotel forgave me and agreed to withdraw the complaint,” the statement said. “I would like to sincerely thank the hotel and its staff and take this opportunity to bring this news to the public.”