Recession? Mexican drug war? Please!

Spring-breakers were not about to let a few ugly headlines spoil their party buzz this year.

Though the economy took a nosedive just as college students traditionally book their spring break trips, and despite a Mexico travel alert issued on Feb. 20, just as spring break was taking off, droves of party-focused, sun-seeking teens and young adults proved just how determined they were to escape.

"Spring-breakers book in the fall for the most part, October and November," said Jason Chute, director of operations at spring break specialist StudentCity.com. "And that was when most of the bad news came out. That was when the news was that kids couldn’t get their student loans renewed."

Nevertheless, he added, "They were still going to book their spring break."

Of StudentCity.com’s top five spring break destinations, Acapulco was the only one that dropped, falling 20% from 2008. Cancun was up 5%; Jamaica up 20%; Freeport, Bahamas, up 15%; and Panama City Beach, Fla., up 25%. South Padre Island, Texas, was also a popular destination, according to Chute.

TEX-SouthPadre"Spring break in particular is a tradition for most students," said Patrick Evans, marketing communications coordinator at STA Travel, an agency that specializes in student travel.

"For many, it is the first time they have a chance to plan and book their own vacation without parents or siblings. Many students will do whatever it takes to make sure they can take a great spring break trip at least once during college."

Doing whatever it takes also means finding creative ways to finance their trips, especially this year, as discretionary spending habits have slowed and the economic downturn has put a crimp in parental assistance.

"You find a number of these kids work jobs at school, more so now than ever, because they do have to supplement their income because mom and dad have been suffering," said Greg Fischbein, president of Contiki, which specializes in 18- to 35-year-old travelers. "They may be rubbing their credit cards together."

Fischbein said Contiki has seen parents not being able to help as much as they have in the past. "We offer a gift registry, so maybe the parent, if they can’t pay for the entire trip, it allows extended family to contribute … and we find that to be pretty successful."

Some operators also offer students the ability to pay for spring break on a payment plan.

Closer to home

If anything, the party, which lasts from late February to early April, was maybe a bit closer to home and a little more budget-minded than in previous years.

And ultimately, spring-breakers were looking for deals, just like everyone else.

"Domestic destinations were more popular earlier in the spring break booking cycle, possibly due to the uncertainty about the economy, than in previous years," Evans said. "One destination that has dropped off is Acapulco, with Jamaica picking up many of those bookings, largely because there are more value options in Jamaica than in Acapulco."

STA Travel said that overall, Jamaica and Cancun were the agency’s most popular sellers, with Miami very strong for domestic travel, in addition to the traditional domestic destinations such as South Padre Island and Panama City Beach.

The numbers are impressive, considering that on Feb. 20, the State Department released an updated travel alert about Mexico, citing the thousands of drug cartel-related killings in the U.S.-Mexico border region in the past year. Colleges and universities followed up with warnings to students heading south of the border.

"Our student groups, thankfully, were booked prior to the Mexico alert being issued, and we have not received any significant cancellations on these bookings," said Gina Esch, senior manager, marketing and public relations at Funjet Vacations. "So, while the alert has most definitely impacted our new bookings, our true spring break groups seem to have stuck."

Esch said Cancun remained the operator’s No. 1 spring break destination. She added that some Mexico business went to Jamaica this year, helping the Caribbean island hold steady compared with last year.

Chute said StudentCity.com had been overwhelmed with calls from thousands of concerned travelers and parents. In the end, he said, the cancellations didn’t happen.

Overall, Mexico was expecting to welcome about 100,000 spring travelers, a 10% drop from last year in a market that accounts for between 5% and 6% of Mexico’s annual tourist visits, according to Carlos Benson, executive director of marketing for the Mexico Tourism Board.

"The response of the Mexico Tourism Board has been a very active one," Benson said. "We are letting everyone know that the violence is concentrated in the northwestern side of the country. A lot has been made of the 6,000 deaths, but they are completely related to drug trafficking, completely related to drug cartels. No tourists have been affected."

Beyond just the fun-and-sun destinations, other operators reported positive spring break performance, as well.

Contiki doesn’t sell much of what it calls "drop and flop" spring break travel. But Fischbein said the operator’s most popular spring break trips -- nine days in Ireland and seven days in Greece -- were up 36% and 23%, respectively, over last year.

"When you’re talking about college students, you’re talking about a much more resilient group of people," Fischbein said. "They’ve got no pension, they’ve got no property, they’ve got no problems. These are two times that students are absolutely going to travel: ‘It’s my spring break, it’s my graduation, damn it. I’m going to travel.' "

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