‘Des­pac­ito’ tourists dis­cover La Perla

‘I to­tally came for the tourist video'

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Some­thing un­usual is hap­pen­ing in La Perla, a poor bar­rio cling­ing to a steep hill­side be­tween Old San Juan and the sea where the video for the pop hit "Des­pac­ito" was filmed. "The grin­gos are com­ing!" Out­siders were afraid to ven­ture in be­fore, but since Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yan­kee's megahit, tourists from all over the world are de­scend­ing on the nar­row streets that wind among La Perla's brightly col­ored houses. "Des­pac­ito?" they in­quire.

And the bar­rio's res­i­dents oblig­ingly point out the lo­ca­tions where the video was filmed: the rocks fac­ing the sea where Fonsi sings the re­frain, the sea wall where ex-Miss Uni­verse Zu­leyka Rivera strolls, the lit­tle plaza where men play dominoes-the ta­bles and chairs just as they were in the video. With the video on the verge of be­com­ing the most watched on YouTube (2.9 bil­lion vis­its since Jan­uary, fast ap­proach­ing the 2.98 bil­lion record held by Wiz Khal­ifa's "See You Again"), a bar­rio once bur­dened with a bad rep­u­ta­tion is now a tourist hot spot.

"I to­tally came for the tourist video," said Jen­nifer Adams, a 28-year-old mid­dle school teacher from North Carolina. "I've seen the mu­sic video many times and I knew where I needed to go, I got pic­tures, I tried to dance." As for Rivera's sexy walk by the sea, she laughed and said, "I tried." Her goal now is to learn the song's lyrics so she can sing it in karaoke. Mean­while, a Swedish woman took pic­tures of her­self in front of Luis's rocks and a Moroc­can tourist am­bled along "Des­pac­ito coast"as the area around the sea wall has come to be known in tourist brochures. In a re­cent in­ter­view, Fonsi mar­veled at the song's im­pact on the non-Span­ish speak­ing pub­lic. "The lan­guage doesn't mat­ter," he said. "What's im­por­tant is the fla­vor, the rhythm, the mu­sic."

'No mon­ster here'

The video's di­rec­tor, Car­los Perez, said Fonsi and Daddy Yan­kee "had a very clear vi­sion of what they wanted." "The key words were cul­ture, sen­su­al­ity, color and dance. What we did in essence was to go film in a bar­rio that had the qual­i­ties that sup­ported what we wanted to do," Perez said. "But the evo­lu­tion of La Perla be­gins and ends in La Perla." In fact, res­i­dents' ef­forts to im­prove their bar­rio are in­de­pen­dent of "Des­pac­ito." The song's suc­cess is a wel­come co­in­ci­dence that "fell from the sky," said com­mu­nity board pres­i­dent Yashira Gomez.

Old San Juan, with its cob­bled streets and colo­nial build­ings, sits on a hill on a walled penin­sula. The lit­tle houses that make up La Perla are clus­tered on the other side of the wall, where the sea crashes against the rocks. Its res­i­dents have fought tooth and nail to pre­serve it, and artists like Calle 13, Is­mael Rivera and Ruben Blades have ded­i­cated songs to it. With 1,600 in­hab­i­tants, it is one of the poor­est com­mu­ni­ties in San Juan. Drug traf­fick­ing largely drives its econ­omy, with the gov­ern­ment try­ing in vain to clear it.

On Yelp, re­view­ers com­ment on the dan­gers out­siders risk go­ing there. "Please don't go there! It is NOT SAFE!" wrote user Gaby G in a three-year-old post­ing. But that is chang­ing thanks to the ef­forts of the com­mu­nity, which set up a com­mu­nal baker, cul­ti­vated two veg­etable gar­dens and raised $80,000 from pri­vate donors to paint 402 houses in vivid col­ors this year. "They al­ways said it was a dan­ger­ous bar­rio be­cause we've been sad­dled with a his­tory that wasn't the best," said Gomez. "But now you can go in and see that noth­ing will hap­pen. There is no mon­ster here, no bo­gey­man, no­body is go­ing to kill you, no­body is go­ing to mug you."

As she spoke, the com­mu­nity board's vice pres­i­dent, Lour­des Lopez, showed a group of tourists around. Later, she ex­plained that the com­mu­nity's next pro­ject is to set up a small busi­ness of­fer­ing guided tours. "We take them through the whole com­mu­nity, show­ing them the most his­toric things, be­cause we have more his­tory to of­fer," Lopez said.

Brand recog­ni­tion

Ho­tel oc­cu­pancy in May rose nine per­cent com­pared to the same month last year, but there are still no over­all fig­ures to con­firm the im­pres­sion that tourist vis­its are up, said Jose Izquierdo, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the gov­ern­ment's Puerto Rico Tourism Com­pany. Puerto Rico hosted 1.7 mil­lion tourists in 2015, six per­cent of its to­tal GDP, ac­cord­ing to the US Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee. But even when of­fi­cial fig­ures are avail­able, statis­tics won't say how many specif­i­cally came for the "Des­pac­ito" ex­pe­ri­ence. A bump could also be at­trib­ut­able to the end of last year's Zika cri­sis.

But Izquierdo is sure that "Des­pac­ito" en­hanced the is­land's brand recog­ni­tion. "All the el­e­ments are in place for Puerto Rico to top the list for trav­el­ers seek­ing a Caribbean des­ti­na­tion," he told AFP. And that is good news for the US ter­ri­tory, which has been hard hit by a fi­nan­cial cri­sis that re­sulted in bank­ruptcy in May. Mar­wan Bad­ran, Ho­tels.com's man­ager for Latin Amer­ica, said on­line searches for ho­tel rooms in Puerto Rico shot up 45 per­cent this year. "We of­ten see spikes up­wards for lo­ca­tions of hit movies or TV se­ries and celebrity wed­dings," he said. "Puerto Rico is no dif­fer­ent now that Des­pac­ito has be­come the world's most streamed song in his­tory." — AFP

A view of the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla where the video "Suavecito" was recorded in San Juan. — AFP pho­tos

A group of peo­ple walk by a 17th Cen­tury Span­ish Fortress stone walls be­tween El Morro and the fort San Cristobal in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla where the video "Suavecito" was recorded.

A woman walks up the stairs in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla.

Jose Vazquez (right) takes a photo of his wife Ana Soto in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla.

A woman takes pho­tos of her two daugh­ters in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla.

A man walks down the stairs in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla.

A man reads a news­pa­per in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla.

A man takes a selfie with his friends in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla .

A woman touches the wa­ter of a makeshift pool in the neigh­bor­hood of La Perla.

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