Alcohol-soaked spring break lures students abroad (USA Today)


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Alcohol-soaked spring break lures students abroad (USA Today)

From: Miles Townes

Date: 1/9/2003

Time: 9:42:58 AM

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Entertainment – USA TODAY

Alcohol-soaked spring break lures students abroad

Donna Leinwand USA TODAY

For spring break this year, one company that sells tours to college students is touting trips to Mexico by emphasizing that the drinking age there is just 18 and is ”rarely enforced.” Another firm that offers packages to Mexican beach attractions such as Cancun and Mazatlan promises ”50 hours of free drinking” over seven days.

And on the travel Web site, students are encouraged to check out Amsterdam, which the site calls a ”pot-smoker’s paradise” because of liberal drug laws. The site does praise ”the lush jungles, ancient ruins and the beautiful hotels” of Cancun, but says, ”Most students just care about the abundance of alcohol. . . . Your yearly intake (of alcohol) could happen in one small week in Cancun, Mexico, on spring break.”

For decades, spring break has been about young adults descending on beach towns for sun, surf, parties and flirting, if not sex. But now some tour organizers are not so subtly selling something else: the idea that foreign cities can be playgrounds for underage American students to drink, and even take drugs, without running afoul of the law.

It’s a shrewd, successful strategy that is helping drive a boom in spring break tours to Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean, where hundreds of thousands of U.S. students party in March and April. Students’ rising interest in destinations beyond the beaches of Florida and Texas — an interest nurtured by aggressive marketing campaigns by tour operators, foreign tourism officials and liquor and beer companies — has redefined spring break.

Tour organizers are careful not to explicitly condone behavior that would violate local laws. Students who sign up for trips must sign liability waivers that absolve the tour companies of blame for virtually anything that could go wrong.

But spokesmen for the companies acknowledge that the promise of free-flowing alcohol for students, including those under the U.S. drinking age of 21, is a key selling point for spring break trips.

Weeklong trips to Mexico, which typically cost $600 to $1,200, are popular because they’re ”affordable and, of course, being international, you can drink when you’re 18,” says Matt Scriven, president of Paradise Parties in Aurora, Colo.

Tour packages that combine airfare, lodging, meals and unlimited alcohol in nightclubs represent a travel ”experience” for students, several tour operators say. ”Our package is more of an event and an experience than it is just a hotel and flight,” says Bryan Deptula, national sales director for a Denver travel firm called Student Express.

Sean Keener, president of BootsnAll Travel Network in Eugene, Ore., the parent company of, says his company offers travel packages that reflect a range of student desires. ”There’s the drunk, drugged-up partiers having sex with everyone they can,” Keener says, ”and (there’s) the people who go to Nicaragua and build houses.

”I don’t want to be a moral warrior,” he says. On the other hand, ”I don’t want to be sitting here telling people to go get wasted.”

But health specialists, U.S. officials and other critics say the all-you-can-drink spring break tours essentially give students a game plan for consuming potentially dangerous amounts of alcohol.

Health officials who have begun to monitor student drinking at Mexican resorts say the tours have become a key element in the dark side of the spring break party scene: incidents involving alcohol poisoning, rape, unpleasant stays in Mexican jails, injuries from accidents or fights, and theft.

”Kids are going to Cancun to drink. The promotion of alcohol before they even get there, and then once they are on the beach, is unbelievable,” says Andrew McGuire, executive director of the Trauma Foundation at San Francisco General Hospital.

McGuire went to Cancun last year to examine spring break marketing and to see how excessive drinking among students leads to injuries. During a four-hour visit to a medical clinic in the city of more than 400,000 on the Yucatan Peninsula, he saw two seriously injured students, one with a head injury.

”It’s a situation where you are infusing an ungodly amount of alcohol on young people, many of whom are not legal to drink by U.S. standards,” McGuire says.

Most students who go on the trips, however, say they enjoy them. Greg Gates, 23, who recently graduated from Murray State University in Kentucky, says he had a great time last year in Mazatlan, a city of about 500,000 on Mexico’s Gulf of California coast.

After arriving there, Gates says, he paid $100 for a ”VIP Party Pass” that wasn’t part of his tour package. It gave him admission to various dance clubs for a week, along with unlimited alcohol at the clubs. Those who don’t buy such a pass with their package usually can get one from tour operators who have sales booths in hotels.

Gates says the pass saved him about $40 in cover charges and bar tabs. He and others say such passes encouraged them to build their vacations around the party scene. Gates didn’t do any sightseeing in Mazatlan.

”Everyone was at the clubs,” he says. ”There was no reason to go anywhere else.”

Foreign spots become popular

Traditional spring break spots in the USA such as Miami Beach, Panama City, Fla., and South Padre Island in Texas still draw big crowds.

But over the past two decades, laws that raised the drinking age across the USA to 21 — along with several U.S. communities’ declining tolerance for hordes of boisterous, partying students — have helped to increase the number of spring break trips outside the USA, travel analysts say. No one keeps comprehensive statistics on spring break travel, but analysts say they expect the number of trips abroad to tick upward again this year, after a dip in 2002 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Cancun has become the most popular foreign destination for college students, according to analysts who estimate that 170,000 college students and high school seniors descended on the city’s tourist zone of hotels and clubs in the eight weeks before Easter last year.

Cancun’s rise as a spring break venue began in the 1980s and came about partly because of shifting attitudes in Florida cities.

Students on spring break began swarming Fort Lauderdale during the 1960s; the city has the dubious distinction of being home to some of the first wet T-shirt contests. But in the 1980s, Fort Lauderdale officials cracked down on noise and public drinking, closed bars earlier and began pitching the city as a destination for families.

Students moved on to other Florida communities such as Daytona Beach and Panama City. Now there are signs that those communities are losing patience with spring break crowds. In October, Daytona Beach officials banned tiny bikinis, including thongs, on public property; fines run to $500.

All of which has been good news for Cancun, Mazatlan, Acapulco, Jamaica, the Bahamas and other foreign tourist spots where spring break business is bustling. In Cancun, Mexican officials, U.S.-based tour operators and beer and liquor companies have worked together to try to attract college students.

Tour promoters tout the city as a place where anyone 18 and older can drink alcohol legally, and students say that bartenders and local cops rarely enforce liquor laws. Meanwhile, drugs, especially Ecstasy and marijuana, are available and usually cost less than they do in the USA.

Another attraction of Cancun, and Mexico in general: It’s cheap. Most students aren’t picky about hotels or food, so promoters have packages in which students can bunk four to a room and have prepaid meals at fast-food restaurants.

During the day, liquor and beer companies sponsor beach parties with free — or very cheap — beer and rum. The Bermuda-based distiller Bacardi sponsored a rum ”shower” in Cancun last year. Spring breakers stood open-mouthed under a spray and swallowed as much rum as they could.

Nearly every day, it’s easy for students, particularly those with club passes, to drink for free from 10 a.m. until 4 a.m. the next day.

Spring break is a big marketing opportunity for distilleries and beer companies, says David Jernigan, research director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The companies advertise on spring break Web sites and sponsor parties.

The companies ”are using Mexico to get around the (U.S.) legal drinking age,” Jernigan says. ”It’s unethical. We set a minimum age of 21 (in the USA) for good reason.”

Liquor and beer companies say they’re doing nothing wrong. Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, the world’s best-selling beer, ”does business in 80 countries . . . and we follow the laws and customs of those countries,” company Vice President Francine Katz says.

Spokesmen for Bacardi did not return telephone calls.

The promotion of alcohol in Cancun increased significantly about five years ago, when clubs there made their parties ”all-you-can-drink” for the price of admission. For club owners, it made big crowds easier to serve and reduced theft by employees. For students, it meant that even those with limited funds usually could drink all they wanted.

Tour promoters then formalized alcohol’s place in spring break tours by creating the party passes. For $75 to $100, students can get a plastic wristband that gives them admission and drinks at a dance club every night. A tour group called Student City sells a $179 pass that gets students into seven all-you-can-drink parties in one week, including three parties that run from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Marketing begins on campus

For tour promoters, the selling of all-you-can-drink spring break tours begins on campus. Tour companies place ads in student newspapers, send unsolicited e-mails and plaster school bulletin boards with fliers. They also employ student ”recruiters” who can earn free trips for themselves by booking them for several classmates.

Promoters’ Web sites cast Cancun and other destinations as places where inhibitions are dropped, alcohol and sun are abundant, and sex is definitely possible. Most of the sites include photos of scantily clad women. Photos of one Cancun club’s ”foam party” show women in bikinis and T-shirts having suds applied by men.

”Nothing (in Cancun) happens in moderation so be prepared to test your limits,” says an ad on the travel Web site Another Web site calls its spring break trips an escape from reality ”filled with beaches, endless nights of music, partying, sex and anything but textbooks.”

Some sites also acknowledge the unknowing folks who might be footing the bill for students’ partying: ”For those of you worried about what your parents might say, tell them it’s an ‘educational trip,’ ” the site says.

Indeed, many parents of spring break travelers aren’t familiar with the details of tour packages. Last year, an American Medical Association survey indicated that 73% of parents of college and high school-aged students were unaware of the all-you-can-drink trips.

‘Booze, sex, acting like idiots’

Critics of such spring break tours accuse the promoters of being irresponsible by not warning inexperienced travelers about the risks of binge drinking, particularly in a foreign country. The critics say that Mexican law enforcement isn’t always lax, and that drunk, uninhibited students can be dangerous to themselves and to others.

The U.S. Consulate in Merida, Mexico, whose territory includes Cancun, says that during the eight-week spring break period in 2002, U.S. students accounted for two deaths, 360 arrests, four injuries that required medical evacuations out of the area, one rape, 495 reports of lost or stolen property and 504 ”general welfare inquiries” — usually from parents back in the USA who were worried about a student’s whereabouts.

The State Department is concerned enough about the hazards faced by drinking students that it has issued a travel advisory for those going to Mexican resorts for spring break. The consulate warns that Mexican bars and clubs, especially in Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Acapulco, ”can be havens for drug dealers and petty criminals. Some establishments may contaminate . . . the drinks to gain control (of a) patron.”

Last year, a drunken student in Cancun fell off a balcony and died, says Consul Glen Keiser, the top State Department officer in Merida. ”That’s what ties all of our cases together: Excessive drinking. Booze, sex and acting like idiots,” he says. ”The hardest thing I have to do . . . is call a parent in the United States and tell them their son or daughter has died.”

Some students have landed in Mexican jails after being charged with offenses ranging from making an obscene gesture to carrying drugs. Under Mexican law, those arrested on drug charges can be held for up to a year before trial.

”Kids get down here and they think the rules are off,” Keiser says. ”Well, they are wrong.”

Tony Placido, a special agent in charge for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says few students realize the risks of buying locally produced drugs in Mexico. ”Mexico is a wonderful place to go on vacation,” says Placido, who was once based there, but ”it’s a terrible place to go to jail.”

Last changed: January 09, 2003

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