No, ‘Des­pac­ito’ isn’t sav­ing Puerto Rico

Made­line Fried­man de­bunks re­ports that the song of the sum­mer is driv­ing a tourism boom

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Made­line Fried­man is a writer who lives in Brook­lyn. out­look@wash­post.com

‘Des­pac­ito.” It means “slowly” in Spanish.

That’s the rate at which my be­wil­der­ment built as I watched the proclaimed song of the sum­mer be­come the great sav­ior of the Puerto Ri­can econ­omy. (If you haven’t heard, Puerto Rico faces a fis­cal cri­sis of epic pro­por­tions, with a pub­lic debt of more than $70 bil­lion.)

Puerto Ri­cans living state­side — and there are more than 5.3 mil­lion of us, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Puerto Ri­can Stud­ies at Hunter Col­lege — surely saw this story. Head­lines such as “Justin Bieber’s hit song ‘Des­pac­ito’ leads to a 45% hike in tourism for Puerto Rico” and “Des­pac­ito Boosts Puerto Rico’s Econ­omy” were hard to miss.

If you are not Puerto Ri­can and some­how haven’t heard it, “Des­pac­ito” is a sul­try dance tune by Daddy Yan­kee and Luis Fonsi, with a remix fea­tur­ing a cou­ple of verses by Bieber. It is the first Spanish-lan­guage song since “La Macarena” to top Bill­board’s Hot 100 chart. It’s mostly about tak­ing your time to en­joy be­ing se­duced. Not too se­ri­ous — no next-level Is­mael Rivera or Bob Dy­lan-style lyrics.

But it’s catchy. As I watched, in­cred­u­lous, the sto­ries about it fill my Face­book and Twit­ter feeds, I won­dered: Could “Des­pac­ito” be more than just a song? Could reg­gae­ton, vil­i­fied in the past as the down­fall of Puerto Rico’s rich mu­si­cal tra­di­tion, have saved us? Could Bieber be fa­mous enough to per­suade peo­ple to visit the Caribbean in the late spring and sum­mer, when grin­gos usu­ally melt in the hu­mid­ity? Could a song 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 such as UPROXX and Re­mez­cla, and even Newsweek say.

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. El Nuevo Día, the big­gest Spanish-lan­guage daily in San Juan, picked up the Ar­gen­tine story. Fonsi posted on In­sta­gram what he read in the San Juan pa­per. Bill­board and UPROXX wrote sto­ries off that post, and as they 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, 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 In­sti­tute of Sta­tis­tics. 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 an ar­ti­cle about the chal­lenges that 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 21 per­cent in Jan­uary, down 15 per­cent in Fe­bru­ary and down 2 per­cent in May, all lower than the year be­fore. (There was, how­ever, an in­crease in June of 5.4 per­cent.)

I also con­tacted the Puerto Rico Tourism Com­pany. Although its ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, José Izquierdo, con­firmed that the num­ber of searches for Puerto Rico is up on travel sites, he of­fered no hard fig­ures on whether more peo­ple have ac­tu­ally vis­ited the is­land since the song has topped the charts. He was, how­ever, quite en­thu­si­as­tic about the sunny pic­ture painted by the claims of 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 is aware, stranger things have hap­pened. Ask any na­tive is­lan­der about el chu­pacabra or the OVNI (fly­ing saucer) in­va­sions from time to time. The is­land is of­ten (mostly af­fec­tion­ately) com­pared to Ma­condo, the mag­i­cally re­al­is­tic city of Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez’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 the 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, de­masi­ado ra­pid­ito.

We’re now so plugged in to 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 des pa cito.

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