Thursday, March 20, 2003

Fewer students in Mexico for break amid terror fears

By Will Weissert
The Associated Press

CANCUN, Mexico - Standing on his tiptoes for a better view of two topless coeds on an oceanfront stage, 21-year-old Iowa State senior Scott Robertson said war and the threat of terrorism weren't about to ruin his spring break.

"The plane landed. I started drinking, and it was like `Why worry about anything?' " Robertson said, echoing the sentiments of fellow travelers, although their numbers are down sharply this year despite deep discounts and beefed-up security by airlines and resorts.

Authorities are worried that Cancun - a narrow peninsula packed with young Americans this time of year - could be the perfect terrorist target. More than 200 federal agents have joined local police in patrolling Cancun's streets this month, and officials are checking foreign arrivals for terrorists.

In the past, "authkrities were there to protect students from themselves and protect the Cancun community from the students," said Glen Keiser, head of the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Merida. "Now, we all need to think `Is this area vulnerable to terrorism?'"

Keiser said no direct threats have been made, but it would be "irresponsible" not to consider Mexico a potential target.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 150,000 to 200,000 college students were descending on Cancun during the eight weeks before Easter. Last year the number slipped to just over 100,000 and could fall below 75,000 for 2003, Keiser said. A local hotel association said occupancy rates are down 20 percent from this period last year, when they slid 40 percent from spring break 2001.

In the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta, which attracts about 7,000 spring breakers a year, hotels have slashed prices by up to 40 percent. And tourist officials in Acapulco said hotel occupancy rates that were down 50 percent last year will likely slip another 20 percent this year.

More students are opting for destinations in Texas, California and Florida, according to Sean Keener, president of BootsnAll Travel Network, the Eugene, Ore., parent company of

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