When Shirley Mason was a young girl, she participated in an activity one summer that ended up being a life-altering experience.
“They would do special things during this two-week long summer camp and they kept talking about this one special thing we were gonna do,” she says.
It was something she has ended up doing relatively often: skinny dipping.
But as enjoyable as that experience was, Mason quickly realized such episodes would be few and far between. At the time, she was living way up in the northern U.S. – Minnesota, to be exact. “Every summer, there were only a few days of the year where I could go down to this area called Park Point and get in the water,” she says. “It used to drive me crazy because I love the water. But I love warm water.”
“So from the time I was a young girl, I was attracted to Florida.”
So the Sunshine State was the place where Mason established herself in the tourism industry as the executive director of B.E.A.C.H.E.S. (Beach Education Advocates for Culture, Health, Environment & Safety) Foundation and the brains behind the clothing-optional section of Miami-Dade County’s Haulover Beach, which is widely acclaimed as one of the world’s best nude beaches.
It’s only fitting that a top nude beach – well, in the eyes of CNN, the Travel Channel, and Forbes (among others) – is in Florida. After all, the nude and clothing-optional travel industry is thriving in the Sunshine State. According to a joint study conducted by the American Association for Nude Recreation and American Association for Nude Travel Florida, 2.2 million visitors to 34 nudist resorts in 2016 resulted in a $7.4 economic impact in the state. Mason says the 1.3 million annual visitors to Haulover Beach alone inject $1.4 billion into the local economy.
Mooning at Machu Picchu
However, the red carpet hasn’t exactly been rolled out for naked travelers in some other locations. In recent years, numerous tourists have been arrested for posing in their birthday suits at Machu Picchu. In 2015, no fewer than ten visitors were removed from the premises for stripping down – even after Peruvian authorities increased surveillance to counter the trend. In 2018, folks are still disrobing at Machu Picchu. Three visitors were expelled in March after baring their buttocks for photos in front of the Incan ruins.
Peru’s iconic landmark isn’t the only site that has to to deal with unruly half-dressed (or more) guests. Also in March 2018, an unidentified female infuriated Thais and triggered a manhunt after she was spotted gyrating against the mythical Hin Ta rock on Koh Samui. Last year, the Cambodian government deported several tourists for taking partially nude photos at Angkor Wat. And recently, Sri Lankan police arrested three men after they took photos of their bare buttocks at the sacred Pidurangala Rock.
While being naked in certain places where nudity is not officially legal may be tolerated – at least, according to travel bloggers Nick and Lins, the brains behind the website Naked Wanderings – “offending others is just not the right way. Cultural and religious backgrounds are important and should be respected.” Furthermore, incidents like “drunk kids getting arrested in Thailand for posing half naked next to a temple” are not only not helping but actually making things worse, in the eyes of the bloggers.
Benefits of Nakations
But despite those nightmarish stories, nakations do retain staunch advocates. When asked about the benefits of vacationing in your birthday suit, Mason first listed the obvious. “If you’re going on a vacation, you don’t have to bring as many clothes,” she chuckles. But more importantly, “[Vacationing in the nude] brings such a sense of freedom. That’s how most people describe it.”
In addition to an increased sense of freedom and possibly a decreased level of stress (Nick and Lins view naked vacations as a way of relieving stress), going naked in public can benefit one’s health. Researchers have found that people who have spent time naked around others (whether it be at nude resorts/beaches or participating in naked bike rides) experience a greater sense of satisfaction with their bodies.
In fact, improved health might be the most significant reason to embrace disrobing in public. According to Stephane Deschenes, the owner of the Bare Oaks resort in Canada, enhanced self-esteem should be the main goal of relaxing outdoors without clothes on.
“When the [naturist] movement started over a century ago, it was about health and later psychology/emotional health,” Deschenes explains.
“Nudity is the catalyst to get people to accept themselves, to show respect towards others by presenting their authentic selves, and to live a more natural life.”
Deschenes sees families with young children frequent his resort. He strongly advocates exposing young children to naturism.
“It helps children grow up with more self-confidence and better attitudes towards their bodies and that of others. They grow up understanding that objectification and hypersexualization that one finds in mainstream society is not the only way. They know a healthier alternative.”
“The key is to step away from the old fashioned idea that naturism is all about relaxing next to a river where everyone has to be quiet,” Nick and Lins say. “Naturist activities that are actually something active can change the perspective of naturism.”
Nick and Lins cite events like naked bike rides and naked festivals as success stories in attracting a younger crowd than “genuine” naturism. Portland’s version of the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) just might take the cake as the world’s most popular unclothed cycling jaunt. The event – which originated 14 years ago as a gathering to raise awareness about cycling safety and the use of fossil fuels – has morphed into a carnival-like party that has attracted more than 10,000 riders in recent years.
So, how has a protest against oil dependency come to be viewed as “a bit of a rite of passage for Portlanders” and an event “at the heart of soul of why people enjoy living in Portland”? According to organizer Meghan Sinnott, backing from the media hasn’t hurt. Portland’s WNBR has established a partnership with the Portland Mercury, a prominent weekly newspaper. Sinnott credits eye-catching promotional materials – such as Facebook banners, posters and items sold on site – for giving the ride an air of coolness. Plus, as Sinnott says, “We’re not a very prudish city.”
According to Nick and Lins, young people serve as the driving force in naked tourism. “Generation Y is known for questioning old values and habits,” the couple says. “And now, that they’ve grown [to become] twenty- and thirty-somethings, they also question the conventional way of living and to an extent, also of traveling.”
A crucial issue organizers of naked tourism products and naked events grapple with is establishing a good relationship with its surrounding community, something that can be challenging but necessary in ensuring the stability of an event or tourism product. In Portland, WNBR event staff attend neighborhood association meetings to answer questions, which Sinnott maintains is not required for obtaining a ride permit but helps put a face to the names of its organizers. She also credits the decision to change the route every year (which is made in order to not keep favoring the same neighborhoods) as a reason why the ride continues to have a good name.
Meanwhile, Shirley Mason believes one crucial step in becoming a valuable member of the community is getting to know elected officials.
“We’ve spent a lot of time having to go up to Tallahassee and other counties fighting anti-nudity legislation. We’ve battled the radical religious right and won several years in a row,” she says. Informing people about the economic clout of Haulover Beach is necessary because “if you don’t know let people know you’re good for the community, you might as well not be there.”
Enforcing the Rules
While South Florida Free Beaches (the organization that administers Haulover Beach) has run numerous events for its local community, the most valuable step Mason and company have taken to make Haulover Beach a comfortable place is for visitors is placing Beach Ambassadors (a term she says is a combination of “a welcome wagon, concierge service and crime watch”) on the premises. After observing what had been successful at other nude beaches, Mason decided to include volunteer beach ambassadors in the business plan. Beach Ambassadors on Haulover hand out literature, welcome visitors and inform beachgoers of proper beach etiquette.
“A beach can get a bad reputation very quickly if you don’t have a group that educates people that come there, insists upon proper beach etiquette and works with the authorities in charge of that beach,” she says. “In the past, when you didn’t have an organized mentoring group for a clothing optional beach, it was going to deteriorate into the lower common denominator.”
Beach ambassadors provide an invaluable service. If perverts think they can get away with [lewd behavior],” she says, “they just attract more perverts. And you just can’t have that.”
Mason explains that because of the unwillingness of many to offend others with nudity, remote locations are often selected for nude beaches, which enables perverts to thrive. She chose Haulover Beach as a site for a clothing-optional beach because it provides numerous amenities such as bathrooms and lifeguards that beachgoers are used to.
“I don’t want to go to some remote place in the backwoods that you to have to schlepp forever to get to that has no amenities,” Mason says.
Bare Oaks is also proactive in fighting any potential lewd acts on its property. “Nobody can 100% ensure [that anything inappropriate won’t happen],” Deschenes admits. “But it is very, very rare because we make it clear what we are about. When people visit for the first time, they must watch an introductory video and provide government-issued photo ID.”
The threat of prompt identification after a misdeed increases the likelihood of better behavior, Deschenes believes. He adds, “Most importantly, we take action on any report of inappropriate behavior. A complaint of a crude comment is enough for us to go and speak with a visitor.”
Nick and Lens have also noticed numerous steps naturist resorts have taken to ensure the safety of their guests. The couple says all resorts emphasize the following major points: (1) no sex in public places (2) respect for each other, and (3) no harassment.
Regarding any acts of misbehavior, the couple states some resorts have adopted “a one-warning system” while other places will expel egregious culprits and ban them for life. Nick and Lins say they’ve been at resorts where the latter case happens and other local naturist resorts have been notified about the incident.
Most importantly, the couple has noticed a communal sense of control at naturist resorts, as well as at nude beaches.
“Naturists take care of each other and notify each other if something would go on,” they note. “For example, if a naturist shows a certain interest in a child, very soon someone will notice and tell the parents or talk to the person themselves.”
Nudity does not mean sex
So what might be the biggest challenge faced by organizers of a naked tourism product? According to Shirley Mason, it’s the belief among many that nudity equates to sex. That’s also a point Deschenes seconds.
“There are so many people who exploit naturism and misuse the term that it’s not surprising that society generally thinks it’s all about sex,” he says. However, Bare Oaks has generally succeeded in overcoming the initial skepticism it faces from many parents.
“We get a lot of couples who first visit without their children in order to determine how it is. They often regret not bringing them when they see all the other kids having fun.” Deschenes adds that oversight is “usually corrected” a week or two later when parents return with their kids.
Possibly to the surprise of many, being naked in public can be relaxing. “It may seem counterintuitive,” Deschenes asserts. “But when everyone is nude, it is much less sexual.”
Mason concurs, stating “people act really civilized in a clothes free environment. And perhaps due to the ease folks often feel in a naturist environment, you get to know people better.”
“Being so open and naked made it easier to be friendlier with people,” writes travel writer Patrice J Williams about her experience vacationing at the Jamaican nudist resort Hedonism. “It’s a bit hard to pass by a naked person and not make eye contact, say hello and possibly spark a new friendship.”
A naked vacation just might represent a new way to enjoy life.
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