Miami Beach needs a clean break from spring break

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Miami Beach [Credit: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com]
It's time for Miami Beach to say so long to spring breakers and tout all it has to offer for vacationers. Photo Credit: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Spring break went off the rails in Miami Beach this year, and the silver lining is the opportunity it presents to reset the city's tourism climate.

"The Beach" made national news in a way that tourism destinations strive to avoid. There were television images of throngs in the street being pepper-balled by police and crowds fleeing in panic from real or imagined threats.

Beyond the images were some cold facts: More than 1,000 arrests were made; more than 100 guns were confiscated.

In the most grotesque episode, a student was drugged, raped, robbed and left to die of an overdose in her hotel room. A 21-year-old and a 24-year-old from North Carolina are facing charges in the crimes.

To his credit, mayor Dan Gelber took action to regain control of his city. He imposed an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for the so-called entertainment district along Ocean Drive, Washington Avenue and Collins Avenue. And he banned inbound traffic to the city after 9 p.m., later relaxed to 10 p.m., for non-residents and non-hotel guests.

"Our city in this area has become a tinder," said Gelber at a news briefing announcing the measures. "And we can't have a policy of simply hoping it's not lit."

Now it remains for Gelber to follow with a more permanent reboot.

For years, big and sometimes unruly crowds on summer holiday weekends have prompted police overtime and resident dismay. The Beach also has a creeping problem with guns being toted, both by locals and out-of-towners.

The tone is set in part by clubs, bars and restaurants that do heavy business between midnight and 5 a.m., the current closing time for alcohol sales.

These trends have Miami Beach police walking a fine line to keep order and safety while not straying into excess force. They are also alienating residents and even some businesses. This year's spring break so stressed the party bar at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive that it shut down for the duration.

Clearly, this isn't sustainable.

And it isn't necessary, because the Beach doesn't need it to thrive. Miami Beach has assets that other destinations can only dream of.  A concert hall designed by Frank Gehry.  A thriving LGBTQ tourism trade. A National Historic District full of cool architecture. Joe's Stone Crab. A spectrum of luxury and boutique hotels. A large, recently remodeled convention center. A world-class beach. I could go on and on.

It's exactly what Fort Lauderdale didn't have when city officials made the painful decision 35 years ago to tank spring break there.  Fort Lauderdale's tourism identity (ital) was spring break. There was a legitimate question about what would replace it if it ended. But the drinking, the lewdness, the room destruction kept growing.

So, Fort Lauderdale squelched public drinking, built a temporary wall between the bars and the beach and generally made life uneasy for kids coming there. It was a deliberate, provocative strategy. And today's spring break in Fort Lauderdale looks nothing like it did in 1985.

The Elbo Room abides. But the Button, and the Candy Store and the party-centric Holiday Inn Fort Lauderdale Beach are all gone.  Still, it has taken Fort Lauderdale the better part of 35 years to build the Ritz-Carlton, the Conrad and the W Hotel that now line State Road A1A.

Miami Beach already has that and more.

I was there at the zenith of Fort Lauderdale spring break, and traffic gridlocked a mile short of A1A on both Sunrise and Las Olas boulevards. An estimated 350,000 kids came to party in 1985. The congestion left Beach residents trapped for weeks at a time.

In a certain way, spring break can be seen as a facet of a familiar problem: overtourism. In that context, Miami Beach is no different than Barcelona or Dubrovnik or Santorini. Each, for some period of time, draws too many visitors into too small a space, aggravating the locals and degrading what attracts people in the first place.

One of the activities at this year's spring break in Miami Beach was throwing wads of money into the air to watch the crowd chase for it. But it's chump change. Miami Beach has many more lucrative ways to make money from visitors.

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