ACAPULCO, Mexico - For tens of thousands of college students fleeing frozen campuses for a week of sun, sand and Jell-O shots, spring break south of the border has a new home.
Acapulco, the Pacific playground of the 1950s for movie stars like John Wayne and Cary Grant, has become a major destination for their great-grandchildren’s generation, bringing new revenue to the city’s tourism industry and to travel companies in the United States.
A surge in student interest here comes as Mexico’s spring break king — the Caribbean resort of Cancun — is taking steps to restrict the college crowd’s increasingly reckless behavior and to tone down its nonstop party image.
‘‘It’s time for a change. People have been coming to Cancun for years,’’ said Jon Lanza, a senior majoring in public relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., who was enjoying bottles of Corona on the beach with friends. ‘‘This is a nicer place. Cleaner, more mature.’’
Acapulco, which has always attracted some springbreakers, experienced a college-student boom three years ago — despite the fact that a flight to Mexico’s Pacific side is longer and more expensive for many cash-strapped undergrads.
Mario Ricciardelli, CEO of studentcity.com, a Web site devoted to spring break travel, said Acapulco is now his company’s top destination and that bookings for the resort are up 70 percent from 2004, compared to a booking increase of from 10 percent to 15 percent this year in Cancun.
‘‘Word of mouth is critical,’’ Ricciardelli said. ‘‘Acapulco has generated a reputation as a fun, high-quality place to visit and that message is spreading.’’
The Student Travel Services’ Web site lists Acapulco as its ‘‘fastest-growing spring break destination.’’
Many U.S. tourism operators expect at least 50,000 spring-breakers to descend on Acapulco this year, and others say as many as 90,000-plus could arrive. At least 100,000 spring-breakers will hit the beaches in Cancun, American industry watchers say, although officials of Quintano Roo state, where Cancun is located, estimate only half that number will show up.
Sean Keener, president of BootsnAll Travel Network, the parent company of StudentSpringBreak.com, said Acapulco ‘‘has officially tied or is near No. 1 with Cancun.’’
‘‘It’s not because of the beaches — it’s because they have a variety of hotels and most importantly, the people and the hotels want college students there, unlike some destinations,’’ Keener said.
The granddaddy of Mexican resorts, Acapulco was glorified in Frank Sinatra songs and Elvis Presley movies. Elizabeth Taylor was married here, John F. and Jackie Kennedy came on their honeymoon, and Howard Hughes spent his later years hiding out in a suite at the Princess Hotel, a pyramid-shaped icon on the exclusive Punta Diamante, or Diamond Point.
‘‘We thought half our school was going to Cancun and we came here to get away from them,’’ said Kate Senzamici, a 20-year-old English major at Providence College in Rhode Island. ‘‘It turns out, they’re all here too.’’
Many students said they had already visited Cancun and were looking for something more upscale.
‘‘In Cancun, you see people falling over. You see people puking,’’ said Chris Lelli, a sophomore business major at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., who was wading around a hotel swimming pool. ‘‘Here the clubs are fun, you drink, but there’s a line most of the people don’t cross.’’
As in Cancun, Acapulco’s drinking age is 18, and bars and night clubs crowd the resort’s golden-sand bays. Students roam from alcohol-soaked pool parties to booze cruises to beach beer blasts by day, then pack into all-you-can drink discotheques at night.
But many clubs here require slacks and dress shoes for men, unlike in Cancun. Also, most of the hotels in this city of 800,000 were built decades ago, offering a more traditional feel than the Caribbean resort’s ultramodern facilities.
‘‘In Cancun, it’s Mexico but it doesn’t feel like it,’’ said Rob LePage, a business ethics sophomore at Wayne State University in Detroit. ‘‘Here you have more culture.’’
Cancun, meanwhile, has begun a push to attract more families and business travelers — heading slowly down a trail blazed by Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which has worked hard to expand its reputation beyond a destination for students on spring break.
A ‘‘civility pact’’ signed by Cancun travel agents, hotel operators and bar owners in 2002 prevents drunken patrons from entering restaurants and clubs, and restricts contests and advertising aimed at students that promote drinking. More recently, some hotels have limited the number of spring-breakers who can pack into a room and have added extra security staff to guard against damage or unruliness.
Keener, whose travel network is based in Eugene, Ore., said it was too early to say Cancun is giving springbreakers the cold shoulder.
‘‘Some of the folks we talk to down there want to get more market share other than spring break,’’ he said. ‘‘But I don’t think they’re ready to ditch it completely.’’
Nicole LaVecchia, a 22-year-old Seton Hall senior, said she could understand why communities might want to put the brakes on spring break.
‘‘I would hate us. I mean, not us, but spring-breakers in general,’’ LaVecchia said. ‘‘I feel bad for the families staying at our hotel.’’
Sarah Healey, a Providence College junior studying biology and Spanish, said Acapulco offered a mix of springbreakers and visitors on ‘‘normal vacations.’’
Why isn’t spring break normal?
‘‘It’s not very relaxing,’’ Healey said. ‘‘You don’t sleep. You drink all day and before you know it, it’s time to go out. Then it’s dawn again.’’