Despacito and Fake News

Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” has been streamed 4.6 billion times as of this writing, and has 2,662,615,500 views at YouTube. It is officially the most-streamed song of all time.

The Justin Bieber remix has had 34,183,494 views at YouTube.

The headlines the song has inspired include “Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ Verse Is Boosting Tourism In Puerto Rico, Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ Could Ignite a Tourism Boom for Puerto Rico, 
‘Despacito’ Boosts Puerto Rico’s Economy, and Justin Bieber leads to 45% rise in tourism to Puerto Rico.”

Madeline Freedman of the Washington Post checked the numbers and no, “Despacito” hasn’t led to a 45% rise in tourism in Puerto Rico, with or without Justin Bieber.

In fact, while the government Tourism Company told Freedman that searches were up at tourism websites, Google shows us a different story:

Searches for “Despacito” may be skyrocketing, but there’s no real movement in searches for “Puerto Rico tourism” or “visit Puerto Rico.” Ditto for all these terms:

  • puerto rico places to visit
  • places to visit in puerto rico
  • best time to visit puerto rico
  • best places to visit in puerto rico
  • places to visit in san juan puerto rico

So the internet doesn’t show any rise in tourism. What about the IRL numbers? Freedman shares that the monthly hotel occupancy rates in Puerto Rico from the government’s Instituto de Estadísticas also fail to show that 45% leap. Same with the Tourism Office’s stats. The World Bank doesn’t have figures recent enough to track possible changes since the song grew so popular, but we’re guessing that when they update, their data will show a similar story.

Puerto Rico has for some time had surprisingly low numbers for tourism. Tourism contributes just 8% of Puerto Rico’s economic activity, compared with 25% in Hawaii, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. This includes all the effects of tourism on the economy; the direct contribution is just over 2%. For the world at large, the average is 10% — Puerto Rico’s tourism industry is not just weaker than those of other island paradises, but is low for the world as a whole.

Last year’s Zika outbreak and debt crisis headlines didn’t help; the good news in 2017 was that numbers hadn’t fallen as much as expected in 2016. Hawaii’s tourism industry boomed following their transition from territory to statehood, and Puerto Rico may see the same results if Congress follows through on the recent plebiscite vote… but Justin Bieber won’t be the cause.

We’ve seen other implausible headlines about Puerto Rico, from “Jennifer Lopez Is the Perfect Human Being” to “Apathy is the real winner in vote for statehood.” By now, fake news and misleading headlines are not surprising.

But the idea that a pop singer could turn around Puerto Rico’s economy in a couple of months is an appealing story, even if it’s obviously false.

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