This site, which first appeared in 1999, boasts more than 880,000 registered members and 5 million unique visitors a month. The founders, convinced that the most valuable travel advice comes from other travelers, envisioned a wikinomics-style site where people could share their travel experiences and photographs, and offer tips about local hotels, restaurants, and attractions. That's happened, all right: 1.48 million travel tips on more than 27,000 locations, 2.9 million photos. Forums enable visitors to ask members questions, 85 percent of which are answered. But members have greatly expanded the nature of the site, sharing information about themselves and making friends. Beyond that, many members have moved VirtualTourist out of the virtual world. They are meeting offline, contributing new content there that eventually finds its way back to the site.
The home page presents a list of so-called travel guides, made up of members' contributions. Each guide is organized under 13 main headings, including "Local Customs" and "Tourist Traps." In Bangkok, along with ads and sponsored links, we found connections to a forum about the city and to discounts on hotels and the like. There was also a list of members, including a Bangkok resident, who had written about the city. Members are encouraged to e-mail contributors for more information.
One of the members who had weighed in on Bangkok—SirRichard, by name—actually lived in Madrid. (His motto: "When in doubt, move.") But he had visited and filed descriptions of 47 countries, ranging from A (Albania) to Z (Zimbabwe). The general descriptions of his visits might have come from a travel book, but his tips were detailed, personal, and, from the vantage point of other Bangkok visitors, right on target. SirRichard was ranked the fifth most popular contributor on the site, based on the ratings his tips had received from other members.
Fed up with glossy travel publications that too often view destinations through rose-tinted glasses, millions of people now tap into VirtualTourist, and dozens of major companies—from American Airlines to Westin Hotels—are happy to place ads in a virtual environment that deals in realities.