It started with a song.
There’s a seaside enclave in Puerto Rico snug against the towering walls of Old San Juan, much of it made up of hillside shanties and other structures painted in vivid colors on walls and roofs. From the sea, it’s a pretty picture.
Billions of people around the globe have seen some of it on video, most of them unlikely to even know its name – La Perla, Spanish for The Pearl.
Rooted in the late 1800s as the site of a slaughterhouse, it grew to include housing for the workers there, eventually encompassing only about a third of a mile of coastline.
It was a tough neighborhood that over time grew rougher as a notorious drug-fueled danger zone whose streets weren’t included on area maps to discourage tourists.
Now, those are the people Royal Caribbean is taking to La Perla to help relief efforts in the wake of 2017’s catastrophic hurricanes Irma and Maria.
First came “Despacito,” a reggaeton smash hit whose popularity further exploded when it was made into a sultry music video that now claims several billion viewers on YouTube.
The video was staged in La Perla, showing street dancers who heatedly and joyously perform around capering children and old men happily playing dominos. Its popularity turned the barrio into an international tourism magnet that helped community recovery work already underway.
Then it was brutally slammed by the twin hurricanes and left residents begging for recovery aid.
After visiting several Caribbean islands to assess where it could best help with voluntourism – the travel hybrid that focuses on sustainable development in needful areas – Royal Caribbean chose La Perla.
“Our guests arrive and they’re invited into the community,” says Melissa De La Cruz, of RCL Global Tour Operations, who developed the tour. “They walk in and are greeted and they go on a walking tour of the community. They see the famous basketball courts that were refurbished by Carmelo Anthony, the NBA all-star. And they get to sign the wall around the basketball court.”
Always accompanied by residents, the giving guests join in with activities at La Perla’s community center, which sees to the needs of the elderly. They walk cobblestone streets and may stand for extended periods, so they should consider their physical fitness and medical history before signing on to the excursion. Activities may include gardening and planting trees, helping with restoration/construction, serving a meal in the soup kitchen, reading stories to children and a changing variety of “positive impact” projects.
“One lady brought nail polish and helped them do manicures,” De La Cruz offers. “It’s really just giving back to the community. It’s a tour for all families. And the guests come back feeling very rewarded.”
There also are opportunities to visit Old San Juan and enjoy a meal there.
La Perla Residents explain that outside aid and recovery are coming slowly, a word that happens to translate as “despacito.” Royal Caribbean’s voluntourism aims to pick up the pace.