Following a spring break filled with shootings, an alleged gang rape and other mayhem, Panama City Beach is having a record-breaking summer tourism season as experts say the community did a good job of reacting to the negative news by quickly passing laws to curtail the chaos.
Panama City Beach tourism tax collections are up 13.5 percent so far this year over the same period in 2014. Hotels are at capacity and spending is at record highs this summer. The area has seen a steady increase in visitors each of the past four years.
Panama City Beach found itself in the national news twice in March after a gunman wounded seven partygoers at a spring break house party and, in a separate event, three men allegedly gang raped a woman on the beach behind a popular night club. Felony charges have been filed in both cases.
County and city leaders reacted by passing numerous ordinances in recent weeks. They approved laws cracking down on loitering and enforcing crowd control. They also restricted beach drinking during March, when most of the problems happen as college students flock to the area from throughout the Southeast.
Leaders also recently announced plans for a public-private partnership to develop a new sports complex near the beach. Their goal is to lure youth sports teams for soccer, lacrosse, flag football and other tournaments. City leaders hope teams, their families and coaches will start a new, family-oriented spring break trend in the area.
Chance Ates, a psychologist and hospitality industry expert with Miami's Johnson and Wales University, said Panama City Beach has done a good job turning around the negative publicity.
"They have been upfront about what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to change things next year. They are taking ownership of their city," he said.
Dan Rowe, president of Panama City Beach's convention and visitors' bureau, said spring break 2015 was a tipping point that forced community leaders to address long-ignored problems with crowds and drinking.
"We have a world-class beach and people want to come and enjoy that. (Visitors) understand that spring break is a limited season," he said.
He said the record summer comes as a relief. "It could have been worse for us than it has been."
Nashville engineer Kevin Hines, who is vacationing for a week in the area with 13 family members, said he had followed the news about the spring violence, "but it didn't stop us from coming here."
"Panama City Beach is a convenient drive from Nashville and our family has been coming to this area every summer for years," he said