Travel

Can Puerto Rico Cash In on the Success of ‘Despacito’?

The summer hit is burning up on YouTube, yes, but like K-Pop hits before it, clicks don’t necessarily translate into tourists

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee perform onstage at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April.

Photographer: Sergi Alexander/Getty Images North America

Since the song Despacito, by the Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, came out last January, its YouTube video has been viewed more than 3.2 billion times, demonstrating that all you need to succeed in pop music is a catchy hook—plus nearly five minutes of incredibly hot men and women dancing sexily in the colorful, if gritty, beachside neighborhood of La Perla. (It also helps if you have Justin Bieber; a remix featuring him is officially the most streamed song of all time, barring Malaysia.) 

But is that enough for Puerto Rico, battered by the Zika virus and an island-wide bankruptcy, to succeed in tourism? Well, possibly! According to sources quoted in Travel Weekly, search queries for the island have risen year on year across major travel sites. “We know that popular culture has a strong influence on our travel decisions,” Taylor Cole, a spokesman for Hotels.com, told the publication. “Puerto Rico is the home of the singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, and it gets a big shout-out in their hit song. Our search data suggests that Despacito is encouraging more people to explore this destination.”

Search queries, of course, are not the same as actual bookings or visits. An analysis by the Washington Post last month disputed breathless claims of a “45% hike in tourism.” And the island’s tourism statistics, which have only been updated through February, do not yet show much of an uptick.

“We are closely monitoring official data sources to evaluate how the increase in searches and interest correlates to the number of visits and sales,” Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., told Travel Weekly. “We know that Despacito has been more than just a catchy summer tune.”

The connection between pop culture and tourism, however, may be a deceptive one. Sure, it seems natural: Tourists want to participate in the pop culture of the places they visit. In Croatia, where Game of Thrones is partly shot, so many visitors have been coming to Dubrovnik, which stands in for the show’s King’s Landing and where you can take GoT tours, that the city is using surveillance cameras to limit their entry. You can’t get off the plane in New Zealand without considering a trek to the “Hobbit” village where Lord of the Rings was shot. And when European friends visit me here in New York, for instance, they always seem to want to go to jazz clubs; and Roman Holiday is fantastic inspiration for anyone who feels like traipsing around the Italian capital pretending to be a commoner.

Guests play backyard cricket at the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand.
Photographer: Joel Ford/Getty Images AsiaPac

But does anyone actually choose a destination based on pop culture? The best example we have of this is South Korea, which in the late 1990s, after the Asian financial crisis, embarked on a campaign to modernize and export its music, movies, and soap operas, and thereby increase the nation’s international cultural standing. This “hallyu wave,” as it’s known, really got going around 2010, and tourism statistics show that over the next five years arrivals increased by almost 50 percent, from 8.8 million to 13.2 million (2015 is the most recent year for which there are numbers). But that might not all be due to Gangnam Style, the Despacito of 2012.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that food and surgery are a far bigger draw,” said Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture. Though Korea’s pop-culture campaign was certainly successful, Hong says tourism didn’t necessarily appeal to those who fell deeply in love with K-pop. They “aren’t that curious about visiting Korea,” she said. “Because, I mean, what’s their plan, hoping to run into G-Dragon on the streets of Seoul?”

Old San Juan, a top tourist destination in Puerto Rico.
Photographer: Maremagnum/Photolibrary RM

Good Korean food (like oysters) would be a stronger draw, she said. It’s the kind of thing that’s harder to reproduce abroad, whereas a YouTube video is the same no matter which country you play it in.

And when it comes to analyzing statistics, Hong said one must be skeptical. “There is no real way to quantify the effect of K-pop culture—it would be a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy,” Hong said. “I even spoke to the Ministry of Culture some years back, and they admitted (rightly!) that it was impossible to quantify the effect.”

(For that reason, I’m skeptical of Slovenia’s recent claim that its 15 percent increase in tourist arrivals from the U.S. during the first half of 2017 is due to Melania Trump. Again, let's look to the food.)

If Korea has a lesson for Puerto Rico in here, it might be this: You can play up Despacito all you want (not that there’s any avoiding it right now), but tourists are going to continue to come for the same reasons as always: beaches, seafood, and salsa dancing. Catchy summer tunes may come and go, but hot locals are forever.

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