Cities Weigh Fiscal Benefits of Spring Break

Twenty years ago, spring-break destinations like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Palm Springs, Calif., passed sweeping ordinances to discourage visitors who were thought to bring more havoc than hard dollars.

The party moved to places like Cancun, Mexico, and Daytona Beach, Fla. Fort Lauderdale watched its annual spring break crowd go from a peak of 350,000 college visitors in 1985 to a mere 10,000 in 2006, according to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Now faced with ghostly hotels and half-empty restaurants, cities are weighing the financial benefits of hosting the party. Palm Springs' tourism office is trying to lure students back, sending text messages to 55,000 18- to 27-year-olds to tell them the city was the place to be for spring break.

Florida's Panama City is enjoying the spring-break boom.

Fort Lauderdale's visitors bureau says on its Web site that it's sticking to a "no thanks" policy for spring break. The group credits its stance for the 70% occupancy rate of its hotels. But it appears that not all college students will be kept away.

"It seems as if there's a higher-end college crowd showing up from Ivy League and private schools that aren't your usual wild and rowdy beer guzzler," says a resident of the city's posh Las Olas neighborhood.

Despite hesitation from Fort Lauderdale officials, new hotel options have created a buyer's market for young spring-break travelers. Next month, a W Hotel, part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts ( HOT), will open in Fort Lauderdale, following the openings of Ritz-Carlton and Trump International hotels in the past two years.

We found rooms available for spring break at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale for as low as $299 a night on the travel Web site Expedia ( EXPE). Spring-break travelers can also still find rooms at the newly renovated Fort Lauderdale Grande Hotel & Yacht Club for $159 and at the cheap-chic Tropic Cay Beach Resort Hotel for $107.

Young Americans have been heading to Mexico in recent years to escape U.S. liquor laws. While struggling college students head to Cancun and Rosarito Beach in search of affordable accommodations, the rich ones head further south to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Resorts such as the Fairmont Acapulco Princess and Boca Chica Hotel are getting glitzy remodels to attract travelers under 40.

Mexico has suffered from a spate of bad publicity recently, including a U.S. State Department warning issued last month to warn students of increased violence involving drug cartels. The warnings are prompting some parents to subsidize spring-break trips to pricier destinations to ease fears and jitters.

One such destination is Playa Blanca, Panama, where Nikki Beach Hotels and Resorts will open a hotel and beach club later this year. The new site from the resort chain known from St. Tropez to St. Barts will overlook the beach on Panama's Pacific coast.

If Nikki Beach is too pricey, beach bargains in Panama can still be found at established properties like the Intercontinental Playa Bonita Resort or the Playa Blanca Resort, where rooms can be found as cheap as $89 per night. Panamanian businesses accept the U.S. dollar so no need to buy travelers checks or worry about currency conversions.

If you want to stay in the U.S. for spring break, Las Vegas is cheaper than ever. The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and MGM Mirage's ( MGM) Mandalay Bay are hosting massive weekend parties even if the temperatures have yet to top 80 degrees. Hotels enjoy the added business while parents love the 21-and-over age restrictions enforced by casino security.

MTV, a unit of Viacom ( VIA), will keep its spring-break celebration in America this year, choosing Panama City, Florida. MTV will host free concerts by artists like Flo Rida, Lil Wayne and the All-American Rejects.
Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.