A report by Madeline Friedman for the Washington Post.
“Despacito.” It means “slowly,” in Spanish.
That’s the rate at which my bewilderment was building as I watched the proclaimed song of the summer become the great savior of the Puerto Rican economy, all in less than a week. (If you haven’t heard, Puerto Rico is facing a fiscal crisis of epic proportions, with a public debt of over $70 billion.)
If you are a Puerto Rican living stateside, and there are over 5.3 million of us, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, you surely saw this story. Headlines like “Justin Bieber Leads to 45 percent Rise in Tourism to Puerto Rico” and “Despacito Boosts Puerto Rico’s Economy” were pretty hard to ignore.
If you are not Puerto Rican, and somehow haven’t heard the song, “Despacito” is a sultry dance tune by island natives Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, with a remix featuring a couple of verses by Justin Bieber. It is the first Spanish-language song since “La Macarena” to top Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It’s a song mostly about taking your time to enjoy being seduced. Nothing too serious. It’s no next-level Ismael Rivera or Bob Dylan-style lyrics.
But I’ll admit: It’s catchy. As I watched, incredulous, as the stories about it filled my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I wondered, could “Despacito” be more than just a song? Could reggaetón, so vilified in the past as the downfall of Puerto Rico’s rich musical tradition, now have saved us all? Could Bieber be so famous that he could reverse historic trends in tourism and persuade people to visit the Caribbean in the late spring and summer, a time when gringos usually melt in the humidity? Could a song that is almost completely in Spanish have that kind of power — now, in President Trump’s America?
Well, puertorros, beliebers and Fonsi fans, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but no, “Despacito” has not, in any tangible way, helped Puerto Rico’s ailing economy. No matter what the Miami Herald, Billboard, the Daily Mail, a CBS Radio affiliate in Sacramento, popular culture blogs like UPROXX and Remezcla, and even Newsweek magazine all tell you.
From what I could tell, this all started with one story from an Argentine news service with some numbers from Hotels.com claiming that “interest” in tourism to Puerto Rico is up 45 percent because of the song. And in our it’s-better-to-be-first-than-right news environment, that was enough. El Nuevo Día, the biggest Spanish-language daily in San Juan, picked up the Argentine story. Luis Fonsi tweeted what he read in the San Juan paper. Billboard and UPROXX got into the act, writing stories off that tweet, and as the stories went viral, each new headline made the Puerto Rico tourist “boom” sound even better. And no one stopped to question the facts.
A long time ago, my father, a retired reporter who covered the island for decades and witnessed all its beautiful chaos and contradictions, gave me some great advice as I was starting out as a journalist: If something sounds too good to be true, he said, it usually is.
This is one of those cases. How can I be sure? I looked up the monthly hotel occupancy rates in Puerto Rico compiled by the island government’s Instituto de Estadísticas. I compared some of the months since the song has been out (February to May of this year) to the same months in 2016. No 45 percent change. I also saw this story about the challenges tourism to the island has faced in 2017, including the fact that the Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s income from taxes on hotel rooms was down 15 percent in January 2017, down 21 percent in February and down 2 percent in May, all lower than the year before. (There was, however, an increase in June 2017 of 5.4 percent.)
I also contacted the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. While its executive director, José Izquierdo, confirmed that the number of searches for Puerto Rico is up on online travel sites, he offered no hard figures on whether more people have actually visited the island since the song topped the charts. He was, however, quite enthusiastic about the sunny picture painted by the claims about the song’s impact: “The Tourism Company is exploring ways to celebrate the success of the song to continue to inspire interest and curiosity in Puerto Rico as a world-class destination,” Izquierdo said.
Y colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado. (And that’s all she wrote.)
I’m not going to say all these stories that made “interest in travel” into an economic miracle are fake news. I’ve decided to chalk it up to wishful thinking. As anyone who knows Puerto Rico knows, stranger things have happened. Ask any native islander about el chupacabra, or the OVNI (flying saucers) invasions from time to time. The island is often (mostly affectionately, though not always) compared to Macondo, the magically realistic city of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and maybe there was a collective hope for some good, old-fashioned Latin American magical realism to get the island out of this horrible economic mess it’s in.
What’s more likely, though, is that there was a great-sounding story with a great headline and wonderful click potential, so everybody ran with it, and it all happened a little too fast, or demasiado rapidito.
We’re now all so plugged into so many things that we’d be smart to listen to a very sage piece of usually unsolicited advice often given to first-time visitors on the island. “Cógelo con calma.” Take it easy. Try not to rush everything all the time. Read the whole story before hitting “share,” produce and consume media at a more reasonable pace, a little more