Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 674, June 10, 2012

"The World is run by fools who kill children
as they pray and practice hymns in Church. And
that's what I remember learning in third grade."

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The Economics of Spring Break
by Devin Leary-Hanebrink

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Year after year, young coeds, eager to escape the North's biting cold, descend upon a warm weather hotspot for a week long respite they will never forget...or, perhaps, never remember.

This annual rite of passage is known as Spring Break.

Naturally, images of loose morals, drunken debauchery, and poor decisions come to mind. On the surface, this ritual is nothing more than an opportunity for college students to imbibe in a little too much alcohol a little too far away from home. However, behind the scenes, market forces are hard at work.

The History of Party Rocking

The roots of the modern Spring Break can be loosely traced to the ancient Greeks. In fact, today's Spring Break is essentially a merger of two distinct cultural themes—vacationing in a warm climate and the bacchanalia—both of which likely pre-date and transcend Greek culture.

First, the concept of visiting warmer climates during colder months is consistent through history. Nomadic peoples, much like animals, choreographed their travels to economically accommodate harsh weather conditions. Later, once permanent settlement became popular, the idea of leaving home for a brief period only to return again grew common. The Greeks and Romans (as well as countless other societies) frequently traveled to warmer climates during winter. However, these travels generally revolved around the harvest season.

The modern vacation—a period of travel spent away from home and work for recreation—was long a privilege of the affluent. In 19th century America, as sanitation and medical technology continued to improve, wealthy industrialists, politicians, and financiers from the Northeast frequently traveled as far south as the Caribbean to avoid the bitter cold months of winter. Eventually, with continued improvements in transportation technology and economic productivity, the general public was finally able to afford modest vacations.

Further, coaches and athletes began capitalizing on the benefit of warmer climates. MLB Spring Training dates to the 1880s with teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, and Chicago Cubs visiting southern cities. In fact, the origin of the collegiate Spring Break is frequently attributed to the Colgate University swim team, which began traveling to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the 1930s for off-season training. Within years, hundreds of collegiate swimmers were competing in the annual Florida event and non-student athletes, looking for a break from classes and the cold weather, soon followed. Almost immediately, a bacchanalia was born.

This second major theme, the bacchanalia, loosely translates as, "a large party or festival." The term is derived from the Greco-Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek mythology), the god of the grape harvest, wine, winemaking, ecstasy, and intoxication. The Greeks and Romans, like most ancient cultures, celebrated the changing seasons, the annual harvest, and spiritual events with magnificent festivals. In honor of Bacchus, an annual celebration notorious for its excessive gluttony, vulgar conduct, and criminal behavior was held each spring, until it was finally abolished by the Roman Senate.

Unsurprisingly, the term bacchanalia has become synonymous with drunken revelry and is most frequently associated with Spring Break. A brief aside, the New Orleans Mardi Gras Super Krewe Bacchus, named after the Greco-Roman god, is known for its over-the-top parade and black-tie formal ball held on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday each Spring.

The Birth of "Fort Liquordale"

Sun-soaked southern cities immediately tried to corner this fledgling Spring Break market because the young college students had money to spend. Fort Lauderdale, the original Spring Break destination, recognized the advantage of its tropical climate and soon began advertising across the country. In no time, private companies— ranging from travel agencies and hotels to liquor stores and restaurants—began flooding South Florida.

With the Spring Break tourists came all the economic benefits (new development, increased profits, and tax revenue) but, as usual, few officials considered the unintended consequences (overcrowding, violence, and property destruction). By the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of young adults were descending on South Florida each spring and, with ever-loosening cultural norms, the headache of "Fort Liquordale" was growing out of control. This once great economic blessing was now an annual curse.

Soon enough, Fort Lauderdale took economic matters into its own hands. Local business leaders and investors began redeveloping iconic Spring Break "hang outs" with high-end hotels, boutiques, and restaurants, all in an effort to attract high net worth individuals and to eliminate the dreaded "Fort Liquordale" label. Further, private security efforts were increased and (with assistance from local law enforcement) started cracking down on loitering and public intoxication. Finally, to prohibit "cruising," beachfront property, private roads, parking lots, and public streets were reconfigured.1 As a result, today's Fort Lauderdale, while still a major travel destination, is no longer the unofficial "headquarters" of Spring Break.

Party Rocking Today

While Fort Lauderdale has changed, the demand for party spots has not and multiple U.S. cities are aiming for that vacated "headquarters" title. Today's top Spring Break destinations include South Padre Island, Texas, Panama City Beach, Florida, and Lake Havasu, Arizona. These cities willingly supply young adults with cheap accommodations in exchange for tourism dollars and, generally, pass a blind eye over any lewd behavior.

More broadly, international locations in Mexico and the Caribbean such as Cancun, Jamaica, and the Bahamas have become increasingly popular ever since the U.S. drinking age was effectively raised to 21 with the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. In response to increasing demand for warm weather and cheap alcohol, these popular destinations capitalized on their countries' less strict drinking laws and ushered in an era of "mega-resorts," drawing Spring Break travelers from around the world. Further, to placate uneasy parents, private firms worked closely with local officials to develop all-inclusive resorts that provide full accommodations—including airfare, ground transportation, secure amenities, and restricted access—for a reasonable price.

At the same time, in response to changing cultural perceptions about Spring Break, other entities like Habitat for Humanity and the United Way began offering community-oriented volunteer opportunities commonly known as Alternative Spring Break. Instead of a binge-soaked blur, students have the option of helping the less fortunate in communities across the globe. In fact, this past spring, students from across the country donated countless hours in tornado-ravaged communities near Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Even with the availability of all these vacation possibilities, most students still use Spring Break as a good, old-fashioned opportunity to put in more hours at work—whether work is an internship, collegiate sport, or part-time job.

What a Long Strange Trip...

Spring Break is another modest example of how effectively markets work without government intervention. People make choices—rationally or irrationally—based on perceived costs and benefits. Today, nearly 100 years after Spring Break was born, students have the freedom to choose between a number of potentially life-changing opportunities, all without interference by politician or bureaucrat.

Whether college kids want to party on the beach, pick up extra hours at work, or volunteer in a disadvantaged community, the common denominator is the freedom to choose.

That's not a bad lesson to learn on Spring Break.


1 Given the current political climate in the United States, any attempt to eliminate loitering and public intoxication or reconfigure public streets inevitably requires State intervention. However, keep in mind the distinction between governance and government. While the former is desirable because it is compatible with a free market economy, frequently private parties must work closely with the latter.

Devin Leary-Hanebrink is an attorney residing in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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