The rite of spring

Spring break tourists must remain mindful of the cultural realities of their vacations.

by Brian Reinken

Spring break is only two weeks away, and expectations are running high.

The American ideal spring break has developed into a quasi-mythical rite of passage, not to mention a multibillion-dollar industry. Young people often espouse spring break to be as much of a cultural right as an economic privilege. For many, fond memories on the beach complement the college experience.

The phrase “spring break” conjures up a very familiar and distinct set of images: bronzed bodies, tropical shores and plenty of alcohol. In reality, however, this mythical spring break applies to the minority.

It’s estimated that between 40 to 50 percent of college students travel during spring break. Furthermore, an Oklahoma State University study found that about 88 percent of traveling students are Caucasian. At Daytona Beach, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, it seems the spring break crowds are nearly as white as the sands. Many traveling students, moreover, utilize spring break as a time to go home and visit their families rather than escape to the beach with their friends.

Nevertheless, when I say “spring break,” I am referring to the mythical rather than the standard student experience. There is some truth to the legend, after all.

Cancun alone attracts approximately 100,000 young people every spring. But these students represent only a fraction of the total population of spring break travelers. Some of the most popular spring break destinations in 2013 were Florida’s South Beach and Panama City, and Las Vegas.

Tens of thousands of students, moreover, vacation outside the United States. They flock en masse to Cancun and Acapulco in Mexico, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and Montego Bay in Jamaica.

Generally speaking, significant fractions of these countries’ economic wealth depend on tourism, and the annual influx of college students injects revenue into their economies. All these exotic locales need to do in return is welcome hordes of intoxicated tourists.

Spring break’s foreign hosts witness a distinct subculture of American life. They see promiscuity, inebriation and incarceration.

American travelers, in contrast, often shelter themselves from the realities of their host countries, whose daily living situations are not always as idyllic as their beaches.

Last year, the Mexican municipality of Benito Juárez deployed 100 federal law enforcement agents and 166 military personnel to keep college students safe as they partied on the beaches of Cancun.

In Acapulco, another popular spring break destination in Mexico, six tourists were gang-raped in February 2013, just a few weeks before spring break crowds arrived. Overall, Acapulco is one of the deadliest cities on earth.

Protected from the horrors of reality, some students who travel abroad over spring break will return home with an image of their host country as a tropical paradise. Perhaps worse, some will leave knowing, but not caring, that what they saw was pure artifice.

Ultimately, student partiers may care very little where they travel for spring break, as vacation hotspots can reduce a country to nothing more than a backdrop for the main events of their vacation: sex and drinking. For the purposes of such students, Jamaica is Cancun is Acapulco. Never mind that these places have histories and customs as old — or older — than those of the U.S.; tourists measure their value in the number of beaches.

To say nothing of the morals that surround binge drinking, unprotected sex and drug use, what are the ethics in treating a foreign country as an expensive toy that we can use, abuse and discard? To understand our role in an international world, it’s imperative to consider this question, even though a definite answer may ultimately be unattainable.

It’s telling that viewers had polarizing reactions to last year’s “Spring Breakers.” Some critics hailed it as a masterful satire of the American spring break culture. Others denounced it as a hypersexual exploitation film. Certain customs of spring break have become so outrageous that we cannot discern between their earnest practitioners and their smirking detractors. The mythos of spring break may be inherently satirical.

Economic realities make it difficult to protest the continuation, of some form, of the annual bacchanalia. The ethical questions that surround indulgence, however, will not go away. Rather, they will return as predictably as do the college travelers: every year, en masse, for a week at a time, only to be forgotten until the following spring.