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When the club became the resort
Some observations on the emergence of “luxury nudism”
Nudism has evolved far beyond its modest roots as a backwoods, back-to-nature social movement. Today’s nudism is more of a commodity than a community. It’s more of an industry than an ideology. While yesteryear’s nudism proposed that our psychological and cultural ills could be remedied by sunshine, fresh air, and community, today’s nudism might be considered a niche leisure industry, one that strives to offer products and services, rather than emotional, physical, and social benefits.
From the early days of American nudism through the 1980s, official nudist publications represented the nudist communities, and documented social life within the unassuming, rustic mom and pop-operated lodges, ranches, parks, campgrounds, and clubs. The word “resort” was almost never encountered in these publications, because these spaces were not considered vacation destinations. The nudist publications didn’t focus on the amenities and services of the clubs, but on the communities that took shape within them. While these nudist spaces were generally rather spartan, with little more than a handful of unassuming cabins and trailers, a pool, and perhaps a clubhouse, they were homes to active, vibrant, and engaged groups of nudists. Nudist clubs were depicted as close-knit communities and vitally-important social hubs.
Importantly, the publications documented the nudist way of life. They didn’t market it. Black-and-white photographs depicted nudists making improvements to their clubs, splashing around in pools, playing volleyball and softball, sharing in simple social activities such as potlucks, making preparations for conventions, competing against other nudist groups in sporting events, and collecting awards and trophies for their home clubs. These were families and extended families. There was a clear sense of community spirit and pride in these spaces, and a shared cultural identity among the participants.
Together, these clubs helped to create and sustain the larger national nudist movement. The modest rural club, when working with other clubs and groups across the country, represented a socio-political constituency, a powerful advocacy network. They gave our way of life visibility. They earned us respectability, or at least tolerance, in nearly every state in the country. To be clear, these spaces weren’t open to all, and a number of clubs rejected prospective members on the basis of race, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation. There was much work to be done, and though access certainly wasn’t equal, nudism of this era wasn’t restricted to a certain class. Nudism was not a capitalist endeavor, and there were no distinctions between the wealthy and the working class. Socioeconomic status was not a barrier to involvement. In a society in which social class influences some of our greatest divisions, this was a particular strength of the nudist movement.
But big changes were coming
In 1973, the first ad for a travel agency specializing in exotic nudist vacations appeared in a nudist monthly. Barely as large as a postage stamp, the ad seemed almost entirely out of place in a publication whose pages were filled with club news and convention recaps. But by 1988, this and other high-end travel companies were placing full-page ads. Soon, developers of nudist condo communities began competing with the travel agencies for prime advertising space.
“Announcing a Ground Floor Opportunity to Purchase Your Condominium at a New World-Class Caribbean Nudist Resort!”
“Luxurious Lakefront Villas!”
“Best Buy in the Bay Area!”
By the early 1990s, the content of the nudist publications suggested that organized nudism was in the midst of a dramatic transformation. Gradually, more and more ads for pricey vacations and luxurious real estate began to appear. But the shift in content went beyond the explosion of advertisements. The articles, editorials, and news reports began to focus less on nudist communities, and more on nudist consumerism.
In 1975, nudist publications included such headlines as:
“Pine Tree Wins Volleyball Superbowl”
“County Officials Fight New Club”
“Solair Members Enjoy Country Lane Setting”
By 1992, the headlines focused on a different kind of nudism:
“Nude Cruising the High Seas”
“Agency Announces New Vacation Giveaway”
“Discover the Caribbean's Only All-Inclusive, All Clothing-Optional Resort”
“This Luxury Super-Inclusive Resort Caters to Adults Only”
The publications’ images of everyday nudists, at work and at play in their modest clubs, were quickly vanishing. In their place, photos of young models clinking champagne glasses while luxuriating in bubbling jacuzzis, and well-to-do travelers flashing smiles beside the glistening pool of some faraway resort. As nudism began to emerge as a leisure industry, nudists began to receive more and more mainstream media attention. A 2003 ABC News report on the growing nudist consumer market made this observation:
“If nudists tend to be older, it doesn't make them less desirable consumers. Even when they don't have pockets for their wallets, nudists tend to have income to dispose of — and they're not about to spend their free time in rusty trailer parks.”
Today, nudism’s evolution from a social movement to a niche leisure industry is virtually complete. A 2023 Orlando News 6 headline exclaimed, “Nude recreation is a $4 billion-per-year industry in Florida.” For a subculture that has long desired mainstream recognition and “normalization,” this kind of headline is widely celebrated. But what has been the cost of this rapid commercialization of nudism? What have we lost? And who has been excluded?
In 1991, the first nude cruise was advertised in the pages of the nudist and naturist publications. Since then, nude cruises have become one of the most promoted leisure activities in the nudist community. But not every nudist can participate. A cruise can cost thousands of dollars, and last for weeks. Who is the typical cruise ship vacationer? The 2021 Cruise Lines International Association survey of 2,215 cruise ship guests (not specific to nude cruises) found that:
75% of passengers are adults over 40 and children under 18.
Only 25% of cruise ship guests are 18-39.
75% of passengers are white.
Compare this data to a different form of leisure activity, as captured in the 2022 KOA North American Camping Report survey of 4,145 North Americans:
Millennials and Gen-Z make up 53% of all campers.
70% of new campers are under 40.
54% of new campers self-identify as non-white.
66% of campers camp in tents.
44% camped at a music festival event in 2021.
57 million reported that they went on at least one camping trip in 2021.
Urban residents represent one of the fastest-growing groups of camping enthusiasts.
We shouldn’t begrudge those who are able to enjoy luxury nudism, but we should recognize that it is largely inaccessible to many prospective nudists. The ability to enjoy a nude cruise or a trip to an international clothing-optional retreat, or even the ability to fly to a coastal state to visit a nudist resort requires substantial disposable income, and tremendous job flexibility. These opportunities are simply out of reach for many young people, those working multiple jobs, and those in lower socioeconomic brackets.
Today, card-carrying, resort-going nudists are increasingly older, and almost entirely white. We recognize and lament this “graying of nudism” and speculate how we might better market nudism to the younger generations, and how we might attract a more diverse clientele. In doing so, we ignore the possibility that we’ve created a nudism that is no longer accessible to many people. Or, perhaps more accurately, we’ve created a nudism that actively targets a very, very small subset of the population. A way of life that was conceived as a great equalizer has become a great divider, with access restricted to a wealthy but shrinking segment of society. Nudism isn’t so much graying, it’s becoming unaffordable, regionalized, and increasingly exclusive.
But for the moment, this new nudism, the luxury/leisure nudism, is booming. Nudism is flourishing as a niche travel industry. And if nudism now identifies as a leisure industry, rather than a social movement, and it’s a headline-grabbing $4 billion industry in Florida alone, isn’t this the measure of success we’re interested in? If the lounge chairs are filled, if the resort rooms are booked up all season, if the cruises are sold out, do we really care who’s buying and who’s not? If the nudist culture has transformed into a money making industry, and a very successful one at that, why should we ponder what we’ve lost along the way?
Businesses and industries are fundamentally different from social movements, and profitability is always, always the bottom line. We should remember this. The large, all-inclusive luxury resorts that emerged in the highly materialistic, consumerist 1980s seemed like a new frontier for nudists. Nudism had finally arrived! Today, most of those resorts continue to thrive, though some of the most successful are now adults-only resorts that long ago severed ties with the nudist and naturist organizations. In fact, many of the most successful businesses in the nudist leisure industry are adults-only enterprises. We believed that we had outgrown the old lodges, ranches, parks, campgrounds, and clubs, we had outgrown the “naked trailer parks,” as some have disparagingly described them. But then we found ourselves being outgrown by the big resorts that replaced them. If luxury nudism remains unpalatable to the younger generations, and when older nudists begin to age out of the marketplace, perhaps many of the remaining resorts and businesses will reorient to serve other markets. It’s something to consider.
But we cannot ignore what we have lost. The power of a well-organized, interconnected national network, held together by influential organizations whose foundations were the lodges, ranches, parks, campgrounds, clubs, and free beaches. Having two or three small nudist campgrounds in nearly every state in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, along with a fairly large number of unofficial nude beaches and gathering spaces, provided more than convenient access points for prospective nudists, these spaces together functioned as a national network, and formed a de facto political constituency that we no longer have. We no longer have roots in every part of the country. We no longer have a voice in local politics and state legislatures. Nudists have little respect in our towns, cities, and communities, because we have no foothold in those communities. We have no presence. We have no (offline, real-life) visibility. We have effectively othered ourselves to most of the country, outside of the borders of the “Sunshine State” and a handful of tourist destinations.
“Enjoy the Splendor of Elegance!” announced a late 1980s ad for a luxurious clothing-optional resort, inspiring one to wonder if nudists traded the rural camp for the Susan Sontag notion of camp. If nudism and naturism are to reemerge as viable social movements, we need accessible, affordable communal spaces, and the network they help to form. It’s difficult to imagine a future in which new nudist parks will be opened, so how will we create these spaces? Perhaps nudists can learn from British Naturism, whose members rent out private facilities, ranging from waterparks to pubs. Perhaps the KOA survey mentioned earlier in this article offers a glimpse into the kind of nudism that might appeal to the younger and more culturally diverse generations, who are enjoying more affordable and accessible leisure activities, like weekend camping trips. They’re packing tents and sleeping bags, getting into their cars, and getting back to nature in the kinds of quiet, rustic settings that our own vanishing nudist campgrounds and parks once provided. It’s a growing market among those living in cramped apartments in urban settings. Just browse the ads on the incredibly popular Hipcamp website to get a sense of what many younger travelers are looking for.
Whatever the solution, we must understand that a nudism without spaces that are easily accessible to all demographics and socioeconomic groups throughout the country, a nudism that has almost no opportunities for participation, a nudism that pins its survival solely on the luxury tourism economy, a nudism that is more of an industry than an ideology, may have a very difficult and uncertain future. 🪐
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