Threat of war, economy, gas prices can't stop spring break

Sunday, March 16, 2003

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- The faltering economy, rising gasoline prices and a looming war appear to have done little to stem the annual spring break migration by thousands of college students intent on partying.

Young people already crowd the beaches in South Florida, playing volleyball, getting tan and picking up T-shirts and other freebies from promotional stands. At sunset, the nightclubs are packed.

"You really want to enjoy it as much as you can, regardless of the gas or the war," said Nicholas Youngblood, 22, a senior at Illinois State University.

Tourism officials in Panama City Beach, one of the nation's top spring break spots, compared hotel bookings there to last year and predicted a 2 percent to 4 percent increase over last year's record, estimated at 400,000 visitors, over an eight-week stretch ending Easter week.

Thousands more college and high school students head to Daytona Beach, Miami's South Beach and Key West, along with South Padre Island, Texas; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; Cancun and Acapulco, Mexico; and Jamaica.

Tourism officials on South Padre Island were more worried. Dan Quandt, director of the convention and visitors bureau there, said he feared the island would get fewer than the usual 180,000 college students, who contribute about $200 million to the local economy.

Mike Foster, of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitor's Bureau, said the crowds may look smaller now but his region is still expecting more people, in part because this year's spring break season is spread out over almost two months, rather than one.

"I think the war and stuff affects our generation a lot less than our parents," said Nikki Saviano, a 19-year-old University of Florida freshman who was in Panama City. "We're in school and so insulated. We don't even hear that much. Like, our lives go on. We're still looking to party."

Rachael Tombolesi, 19, a sophomore at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, said she has several friends in the military who have been sent to Kuwait.

"They just say 'If I can't have fun, you can have fun, it's all gravy, baby,"' she said.

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