It was a tough year for the Gulf Coast’s Spring Break industry, primarily due to a handful of incidents 180 miles east of Mobile in Panama City Beach.
For the last several years, there has been a concerted effort to push back against the annual tradition of Spring Break for college students. Not just against Panama City Beach, but the whole idea that in the middle of a rigorous college semester, young people would blow off steam by congregating someplace where they may or may not get drunk, use drugs and/or engage in risky sexual behavior.
That’s been the crusade of Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity for the last few years. Every March and April, Hannity will host any number of segments — including a couple of hour-long specials — full of shirtless dudes and bikini-clad college coeds dabbling in that mystical world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (and sometimes even rap music).
At first it seemed like an innocuous excuse for the Fox News Channel to draw eyeballs by putting up its own version of “Girls Gone Wild” aimed at the 60-and-up crowd. Lately, however, it has done some real damage, not only to the reputation of Panama City Beach, but the entire portion of the Gulf Coast known as the “Redneck Riviera.”
For Mobilians, all that nonsense in neighboring Florida seems like a world away. But in the eyes of someone not as familiar with geography living 500 miles or more away, this part of America is all the same.
In other words, from Dauphin Island all the way to Port St. Joe, we’re in this together, at least to some degree. Once someone selects a general area for a vacation destination, it often comes down to where the cheapest condo rental is with access to the beach.
Panama City Beach hasn’t done itself any favors by allowing an environment that may result in a gang-rape incident or high-profile college football players engaging in a brawl. None of that behavior should ever be tolerated, even if it requires calling in the National Guard because the throng of college students are overwhelming the local police.
What Hannity and his ilk are missing, however, is that the constant demonization of Panama City Beach — and spring break in general — is doing a disservice to the coastal areas of Florida and Alabama. Is it really fair to condemn a certain area because it doesn’t conform to someone’s idea of socially acceptable behavior?
The effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill are still lingering, even five years later. There are still empty storefronts scattered anywhere along U.S. 98. In the late summer, there is the added threat that a significant hurricane could come along and force some businesses to hit the reset button entirely.
The anti-Spring Break movement may have honorable intentions but the economic consequences should be addressed. It’s not those who run places like Club La Vela and Spinnakers in Panama City Beach that will be hit, but the other business owners. Hotel chains, restaurants, store owners — they could all be casualties of the war on Spring Break.
What do we do about it?
Fighting the cause for Spring Break may be lost. It has crossed a line from reckless youthful behavior into the darker areas of rape and brawls.
As someone who prides himself on being pro-American small business, Hannity should recognize who is being hurt by his campaign and look at ways to promote the area to compensate for what could be lost income for businesses and tax revenue for local governments. If you take away the economic incentive to tolerate the behavior, then he might achieve the real change he has been advocating.
After the BP oil spill, Hannity’s MSNBC competitor Joe Scarborough, a Pensacola native, recognized the need to create positive PR for his home region. He hosted his popular MSNBC morning show on Pensacola Beach. It’s not clear whether this made a huge difference to the area, but it did lend Scarborough some credibility.
The Gulf Coast has cleaned up its act over the last two decades. The beach communities in Baldwin County have been sanitized. Roadside motels and dive bars with oyster-shell parking lots have given way to modernized condominiums and chain restaurants with fern bars.
That’s the trend for the entire coast and once the evolution is complete, guess what? The next generation of spring breakers will find another destination. If Hannity wants to expedite that process, there are ways he can help that aren’t detrimental to the law-abiding people just trying to make an honest living.
Meanwhile, there has been another noticeable trend in Spring Break tourism and it might not be very long before Panama City Beach goes the way of Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach and becomes another passé destination.
Legal marijuana sales have put Colorado on the radar as a desirable Spring Break destination. But for whatever reason, perhaps because it isn’t as visually stimulating as showing multitudes of college students jumping around to Ke$ha or Pitbull on a beach, it hasn’t registered on the moral outrage machine like Spring Break on the Gulf Coast has.