- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

ACAPULCO, Mexico - For tens of thousands of college students fleeing frozen campuses for a week of sun, sand and Jell-O shots, spring break south of the border has a new home.

Acapulco, the Pacific playground of the 1950s for movie stars such as John Wayne and Cary Grant, has become a major destination for their great-grandchildren’s generation.

A surge in student interest comes as Mexico’s spring-break king — the Caribbean resort of Cancun — is taking baby steps to restrict the college crowd’s increasingly reckless behavior and tone down the area’s nonstop party image.

“It’s time for a change. People have been coming to Cancun for years,” says Jon Lanza, a senior majoring in public relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., who is enjoying pre-noon bottles of Corona on the beach with friends. “This is a nicer place. Cleaner, more mature.”

Acapulco, which has always attracted some spring breakers, experienced a college-student boom three years ago — even though a flight to Mexico’s Pacific side is longer and more expensive for many cash-strapped undergrads.

Mario Ricciardelli, chief executive officer of Studentcity.com, a Web site devoted to spring-break travel, says Acapulco has become his company’s top destination, with bookings for the resort up 70 percent from 2004. That compares with a booking increase of 10 percent to 15 percent this year in Cancun.

“Word of mouth is critical,” Mr. Ricciardelli says. “Acapulco has generated a reputation as a fun, high-quality place to visit, and that message is spreading.”

The Student Travel Services Web site lists Acapulco as its “fastest-growing spring break destination.”

Many U.S. tourism operators expect at least 50,000 spring breakers to descend on Acapulco this year, and others say 90,000-plus could arrive. At least 100,000 spring breakers will hit the beaches in Cancun, American industry watchers say, though officials of Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun is, estimate that half that number will show up.

Sean Keener, president of BootsnAll Travel Network, the parent company of Studentspringbreak.com, says Acapulco “has officially tied or is near number one with Cancun.”

“It’s not because of the beaches — it’s because they have a variety of hotels and, most importantly, the people and the hotels want college students there, unlike some destinations,” Mr. Keener says.

The granddaddy of Mexican resorts, Acapulco was glorified in Frank Sinatra songs and Elvis Presley movies. Elizabeth Taylor was married here; John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy came on their honeymoon; and Howard Hughes spent his later years hiding out in a suite at the Princess Hotel, a pyramid-shaped icon on the exclusive Punta Diamante, or Diamond Point.

“We thought half our school was going to Cancun, and we came here to get away from them,” says Kate Senzamici, a 20-year-old English major at Providence College in Rhode Island. “It turns out they’re all here too.”

Many students say they already have visited Cancun and looked for something more upscale.

“In Cancun, you see people falling over,” says Chris Lelli, a sophomore business major at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., wading around a hotel swimming pool. “Here, the clubs are fun, you drink, but there’s a line most of the people don’t cross.”

As in Cancun, Acapulco’s drinking age is 18, and bars and nightclubs crowd the resort’s golden-sand bays. Students roam from alcohol-soaked pool parties to booze cruises to beach beer blasts by day, then pack into all-you-can drink discotheques at night.

However, many clubs here require slacks and dress shoes for men, unlike in Cancun. Also, most of the hotels in this city of more than 600,000 were built decades ago and offer a more traditional feel than Caribbean Cancun’s ultramodern facilities.

“In Cancun, it’s Mexico, but it doesn’t feel like it,” says Rob LePage, a business ethics sophomore at Wayne State University in Detroit. “Here you have more culture.”

Cancun, meanwhile, has begun a push to attract more families and business travelers — heading slowly down a trail blazed by Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which has worked hard to expand its reputation beyond that as a destination for students on spring break.

A pact signed by Cancun travel agents, hotel operators and bar owners in 2002 prevents drunken patrons from entering restaurants and clubs and restricts contests and advertising that promote drinking among students. More recently, some hotels have limited the number of spring breakers who can pack into a room and have added security staff to guard against damage and unruliness.

Mr. Keener, whose travel network is based in Eugene, Ore., says it is too early to say whether Cancun is giving spring breakers the cold shoulder.

“Some of the folks we talk to down there want to get more market share other than spring break,” he says, “but I don’t think they’re ready to ditch it completely.”

Nicole LaVecchia, a 22-year-old Seton Hall senior, says she can understand why communities might want to put the brakes on spring break.

“I would hate us. I mean, not us, but spring breakers in general,” Miss LaVecchia says. “I feel bad for the families staying at our hotel. Look at what they’re exposed to. Wet-T-shirt contests in front of kids?”

Sarah Healey, a Providence College junior studying biology and Spanish, says Acapulco offers a mix of spring breakers and visitors on “normal vacations.”

Why isn’t spring break “normal”?

“It’s not very relaxing,” Miss Healey says. “You don’t sleep. You drink all day, and before you know it, it’s time to go out. Then it’s dawn again.”

Acapulco: Visit www.visitacapulco.com.mx/english/homepage.html or call the Mexico Tourism Board at 800/44-MEXICO.

Spring-break travel: Visit www.studentcity.com or call 888/777-4642, or go to www.studentspringbreak.com.

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