- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico
War and the threat of terrorism weren't about to ruin Scott Robertson's spring break. "The plane landed. I started drinking, and it was like, 'Why worry about anything?'" said the 21-year-old senior from Iowa State University.
While Mr. Robertson echoed the sentiments of fellow travelers, the number of spring break visitors is down sharply this year despite deep discounts and heightened security by airlines and resorts.
Authorities are worried that Cancun a narrow peninsula packed with young Americans this time of year could be the perfect terrorist target.
More than 200 federal agents have joined local police in patrolling Cancun's streets this month, and officials are checking foreign arrivals for terrorists.
In the past, "authorities were there to protect students from themselves and protect the Cancun community from the students," said Glen Keiser, head of the U.S. Consulate in the nearby city of Merida. "Now, we all need to think, 'Is this area vulnerable to terrorism?'"
Mr. Keiser said there have been no direct threats made, but added it would be "irresponsible" not to consider Mexico a potential target.
Many would-be travelers apparently do.
Before the September 11 attacks, between 150,000 and 200,000 college students were descending on Cancun during the eight weeks before Easter. Last year, the number slipped to a little more than 100,000, and it could fall below 75,000 for 2003, Mr. Keiser said.
A local hotel association said occupancy rates are down 20 percent from this period last year, when they slid 40 percent from spring break 2001.
In the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta, which attracts about 7,000 spring breakers a year, hotels have slashed prices by up to 40 percent.
And tourism officials in Acapulco said hotel occupancy rates that were down 50 percent last year are likely to slip another 20 percent this year.
Despite the availability of cheap airfares from carriers scrounging for business, more students are opting to hit the road for destinations in Texas, California and Florida, according to Sean Keener, president of BootsnAll Travel Network, the Eugene, Ore., parent company of StudentSpringBreak.com.
Tourism officials in Panama City Beach, Fla., are predicting they will top last year's record, estimated at 400,000 visitors, during an eight-week stretch that ends after Easter.
Nicholas Youngblood, 22, a senior at Illinois State University, lounged on the beach as hundreds of young people around him chugged beer, played volleyball and loaded up on corporate promotional products.
"You really want to enjoy it as much as you can, regardless of the gas [prices] or the war," Mr. Youngblood said.
Jim Moldane of StudentExpress.com said a sluggish economy more than war jitters or terrorism fears has kept students at home.
"People aren't feeling as rich as they did two years ago. The stock market has been down, and the economy has really taken a hit," Mr. Moldane said.
"A lot of students' parents lost their jobs, and that means there just isn't the money there for them to travel."

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