Spring Break! How Cities Prepare for an Increase in Tourists

Fun-loving college students present some public safety challenges for local officials.
by , | March 17, 2012 AT 1:00 PM

This month, thousands of college students will trek from their campuses to beaches and resorts across the country as part of the annual spring break ritual. Sun-drenched and occasionally inebriated, the masses of young people present a unique challenge for local governments that oversee these vacation destinations. Governing has decided to check in with a couple of the popular spring break sites to ask how they handle their fun-seeking visitors.

Today, we spoke with officials from Panama City Beach and Daytona Beach, Fla. This post will be updated when Governing receives more information from other spring break hot spots around the country.

Panama City Beach, Fla., is one of the famed locales. Police Chief Drew Whitman estimates that the city’s population swells from a little more than 12,000 to 150,000 or 250,000 during the busiest periods between March 1 and April 15, official spring break season.

“We run and hide,” City Manager Richard Jackson said with a laugh. He’s joking, of course. The spring breakers bring a fair share of economic activity with them. According to the Wall Street Journal, the city’s businesses earn up to $101 million during March. Jackson has heard anecdotally that the spring break season accounts for 30 to 35 percent of some local businesses’ yearly income.

But public safety precautions are taken, largely by beefing up law enforcement patrols. Panama City Beach has an interagency agreement with other state and local authorities (Panama City Police, Bay County Sheriff, the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco), which combined supply up to 50 additional officers on some of the busiest weekends. The state troopers send two shifts of 12 officers over the 45-day period; the alcohol control squad provides 24 agents; and the county sheriff patrols between five and 20 deputies.

This spring break season, still in its early stages, has been predictably eventful. Between March 1 and March 15, city police made 477 arrests, issued 1,200 citations and answered 4,200 calls. During the calmer winter months, police might make between 50 and 100 arrests and respond to 1,000 calls, Whitman said.

Public sanitation is also a concern, Jackson said, and crews are usually on the scene the next morning at the popular clubs and bars that attract hundreds of party-goers nightly. Beer bottles, plastic cups and other litter are common sights, so city workers do their best to manage the mess, he said.

Panama City Beach has been a spring break destination since the 1940s, Jackson said, initially for students from southern Alabama and Georgia. He credited that history with helping the city prepare for the annual influx of the young and the restless. And given the economic boon that accompanies a few public safety headaches, Jackson said the city’s spring break reputation is ultimately a positive.

“If you have a large group of people, you’re going to have a few who get unruly,” he said. “But they are a small percentage of those who come.”

South Padre Island, Texas, is the choice destination for the sizable college crowd from that state. Many public schools share the same spring break: "Texas Week," as officials on the island call it, when they see their largest infusion of tourists. The island is in the midst of Texas Week right now, said South Padre Island Police spokesman Tim Howell.

While crime stats won't be available till next week, Howell could detail the steps that the police department takes to handle the crowds. The department adds 80 temporary employees (police, emergency medical services, beach patrol, etc.), roughly doubling its size. An EMS tent is set up at Coca Cola Beach, one of the most populated locations where up to 20,000 partiers will gather (the island's official population is less than 3,000).

On a normal day, about two ambulances will be on call. During Texas Week, that number jumps to nine or more. Because the closest hospital is 25 miles away, Howell said the extra trucks are a necessity. Church groups volunteer to give visitors free rides to cut down on the risk of drunk driving and other public safety hazards.

More than 70 overly enthusiastic spring breakers were housed in the island's jail on Thursday night, Howell said, a substantial increase over the normal population. The EMS units have been averaging 40 calls per day this week, up from a norm of 25.

"it's treated as a special event," Howell said of Texas Week. "It's definitely its own special challenge."

Daytona Beach, Fla., isn't one of the top Spring Break destinations like it used to be, but according to one local official, one thing hasn't changed: the negative effects that alcohol can have, especially on young women.

According to police department spokesperson Jimmy Flynt, the biggest safety concern for college-aged Spring Break-goers isn't necessarily alcohol, but the short-term memory loss that it causes:

"I think it's when these college-aged girls go to these different clubs, and they meet these guys that they don't know, and they go back to their motel rooms, and then they wake up the next morning, and they don’t know whether they consented to sex or not."

According to Flynt, rape accusations tend to rise during the roughly six weeks that Spring Break lasts. So do alcohol-related arrests, he said, but “it's nothing like it was 10, 15 years ago.” The reason? Smaller crowds and a general improvement in young tourists’ behavior, he said.

The New York Times noted improvements in behavior in an article focusing on spring breakers in Key West, Fla. Bartenders told the Times that crowds seem to be much calmer there, potentially due to fear of scandalous photos showing up on Facebook.

Are you a city official from a spring break destination? We'd like to talk to you. Please share your stories on handling spring break crowds in the comments below or send an email to Dylan Scott at dscott@governing.com or to Caroline Cournoyer at ccournoyer@governing.com