They say that sex sells, but when it comes to sex and travel, they don't know the half of it.
"Libertine tourism" is the term coined to describe travel that celebrates pleasures of the body, and a 2016 report in Forbes magazine that focused on this niche market estimated it was a $20 billion industry worldwide.
First, let's clarify a few things. Libertine tourism is not the same as sex tourism, which includes prostitution, pedophilia, human trafficking or other illegal sexual activities. Nor is it the same as nudist travel, though quite often the two do overlap.
Libertine tourism refers to travelers in "the lifestyle," a term that denotes people or couples who engage in adventurous sexual practices such as recreational sex with other consenting adults. Yes, that includes orgies, but to be clear, it doesn't have to. It could also mean partner swapping, threesomes, monogamous sex in public or simply watching others at play.
In the tourism industry, it means sex-positive travel, usually to resorts or on cruises where sex isn't just what's on the menu, it's what everyone is ordering. While this may or may not shock people, what is genuinely shocking is just how big libertine tourism actually is in the U.S., coupled with the fact that very few travel advisers are capitalizing on it.
Strip Seduction is one of the many selections offered to guests on the Desire Riviera Maya Pearl resort’s Fantasy Menu.
Nudists vs. the lifestyle
Before agents jump into this niche market, however, it's important to understand its key subcategories. Nudists are not necessarily living the lifestyle, and lifestyle practitioners aren't necessarily nudists.
"It's a misconception that nudist travel is sex travel," said Donna "Champagne" Daniels, owner of Castaways Travel in Spring, Texas. "Still, to this day, it appears as if the American perception of it is, if you're nude then you're in the lifestyle. That is totally wrong."
Daniels' company, Castaways Travel, is a subsidiary of her overarching parent company, Fox Travel, which sells more typical vacations that are not focused on sex. In the category of nudist travel, Castaways Travel is one of the country's premier agencies, having sold clothing-optional vacations since 1991.
What started as a hobby for Daniels and her husband, James Bailey, blossomed into a lucrative business. Today Castaways Travel accounts for some 80% of Fox Travel's annual revenue, pulling in about $6 million. Champagne (Daniels' Castaways Travel name) has a team of agents, each of whom pulls in $2.5 million to $3 million in sales annually. In contrast, she said her traditional agents average $1.5 million.
Nudist travel refers specifically to travelers who like to go on vacation and be naked, plain and simple, whereas lifestyle travel places a heavier emphasis on sex, featuring resorts and cruises that offer everything from topless-optional pool areas to full-fledged "playrooms" designed with group sex in mind.
Where the two niches do intersect is at resorts or on cruises that cater to all tastes.
"There is not one resort that we sell that is only for the nudists or clothing-optionals," Daniels said. "There is not one resort that is only for lifestyle people."
The exception is Karisma's Hidden Beach Resort on Mexico's Riviera Maya, which is designed specifically for nudists and reminds its guests that public displays of affection are not part of the agenda. Of course, what guests do behind closed doors is entirely up to them.
Still, agents who sell clothing-optional travel "want to be known for selling fun -- I don't care what your definition of it is," Daniels said. "We can't interrogate everyone who calls us. They want to go to a clothing-optional resort; they ask us questions, we answer them. We don't guarantee anything other than [assuring them that] if they would be receptive to new experiences, they will have a great time."
The Hedonism Glow pool party at Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica.
No typical client
Like any travel niche these days, the "typical libertine client" covers a wide range of types. Most agencies report that clients range in age from their 20s all the way up through their 70s.
"It's truly a wide range," said Heather, owner of Go Away Nude in St. Louis (who requested that her last name not be used). "I'd say there are a lot of travelers who are middle age, with either older kids or kids who have already left home. This is a big part of the market, just because they have more disposable income. But we also have clients from their 20s up through much older couples, as well."
Joe Giantonio, owner of Topless Travel in Coral Springs, Fla., said, "The meat of our demographic is mid-30s to mid-50s.This is about 80% of our clients, these people who, from a psychological and sociological standpoint, are either empty nesters or are getting close to that point and want to relive their college days."
According to Daniels, the typical Castaways client is very established in a career. Many own their own businesses. They are confident. They are risk takers. All are characteristics that draw them to this style of travel.
What brings these travelers together, however, is the common theme of looking for judgment-free vacations on which they can let loose, have fun and do whatever comes naturally in a safe environment where everyone is on the same playing field, so to speak.
"I have several billionaire clients," Giantonio said. "They go to Hedonism. They get naked. And you'd never know the difference between them and the guy next to them. You wouldn't know who is who. And that's a monster draw."
He added, "Most lifestyle people are really genuine and nice people. We literally have nothing to hide."
The Hedonism Playroom at Hedonism II.
Personally, I can attest to that. This past June, I visited Hedonism on a solo fam trip. I found another single person there, freshly divorced, looking to blow off steam and explore sides of himself that had been dormant for years. We met up one evening for dinner, on what happened to be Fetish Night.
You'd never have known this man was worth millions -- he sat there at the table in full leather, with a dog collar and leash fastened tightly around his neck -- save for the fact that he had impeccable table manners and was mortified when he spoke with a mouthful of food. "I'm so sorry!" he said apologetically, very noticeably embarrassed for his sins against Emily Post.
"You're in a dog collar," I reminded him. "I don't think you have anything to worry about."
The nude pool at Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica.
The modern nudist or lifestyle traveler has a bit more money to burn than the average tourist, which is why this is such a lucrative niche. These vacations aren't cheap, and the hotel and cruise products are top of the line in quality.
Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica, for example, one of the resorts at the forefront of nudist and lifestyle travel, recently completed a $6.8 million renovation of its guestrooms and public areas. Rates start at around $400 a night.
Similarly, Temptation Cancun Resort, one of the original topless resorts in Cancun, had until recently been closed for a yearlong, propertywide overhaul. It reopened in August with 430 rooms and suites, each with a terrace or balcony; new guest areas; a pool; new shows; eight specialty restaurants, including an aphrodisiac-themed restaurant; and five bars.
Guests making a "human sundae" poolside at the Desire Riviera Maya Pearl resort in Mexico.
Temptation is under the Original Group portfolio, which also owns the Desire properties and plans to launch a Desire cruise product. What's more, the company recently announced that Temptation will expand its international portfolio in 2019 with a new resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Rates at Temptation begin at $342 a night. The Desire Riviera Maya Pearl is $642 per night, and Desire Riviera Maya is $568 per night.
These are not cheap stays.
Lifestyle cruises are another, massive part of the market, with charters being offered four to five times a year aboard vessels owned by Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.
The price to charter a cruise ship for a week begins at around $3 million. A travel agency needs to sell about 80% of that to break even, which is why the average price of a seven-day lifestyle cruise can hit upwards of $4,000 per cabin. Giantonio said his Topless Travel agency makes $5 million annually on cruise sales alone, and it has an 85% rebook rate, with half of those clients rebooking the same ship for the following year.
Nor is it just about taking your clothes off and doing whatever else might follow. While that is often the main draw, libertine travelers are still travelers, and they want not just comfort but a wealth of experiences.
"These travelers don't necessarily want to lie by the pool all day long, which in the original generation that was seeking an au natural vacation, that was pretty much the goal," Daniels said. "These travelers are active. They want tequila tastings, cooking classes, language classes, wine tastings. They want all kinds of opportunities, like at any traditional resort that will give you several choices on how to fill your day."
Beach beds at the Desire Riviera Maya resort in Mexico.
The market swings younger
On the whole, when neophytes first hear the term "nudist resort," the image that pops into their heads is a clientele that no one would ever actually want to see naked. Similarly, when people who have never been to a swingers resort hear the term, they begin to imagine creepily mustachioed men with gold chains and pinky rings surrounded by a harem of mail-order brides.
That is far from reality today.
Thanks to changing views on sexuality, an increase in open-mindedness and acceptability -- not to mention the continually blurring concepts of what is "normal," especially among millennials -- the industry is seeing a strong uptick in younger generations enjoying clothing-optional and lifestyle resorts.
"Social media has had a strong impact on this," Don Hughes, director of Right Connections Travel in Las Vegas, said of changing attitudes. "The world is adapting to new things. People are trying to be more outspoken and more adventurous."
Daniels observed that millennials "grew up with nudism on billboards, on TV, magazines and ads. They don't understand what all the hoopla is about being naked."
In the past, nudists and swingers tended to be associated with older generations, but millennials are engaging in exactly the same behaviors today, though they are not calling it swinging. But whatever terms younger generations use to describe it, the travel industry is offering more product to match the libertine mindset.
Francesca Gentille, a clinical sexologist, author and relationship specialist from San Francisco, sees that mindset as a phenomenon that has popped up in some form throughout much of history.
The clothing-optional prude pool at Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica.
"Every decade there is an urge, as people come into their sexuality, to explore it and to identify it as different than their parents," she said. "Swinging is not new. It's been around for centuries but came back into popularity in the 1970s. In the '80s we saw open relationships. In the '90s 'polyamory' was coined. In the 2000s we saw sensual festivals on the rise. My sense in the 2010s, especially among people in their 20s, is that more people will [self] identify as kinky. They don't identify as swingers, necessarily. They're just doing it a different way."
Similarly, Giantonio said, "We find that younger people don't want to be labeled swingers, but they all behave the same way that swingers do: They go partying, they go clubbing, and then they all go home and jump into bed together."
Not surprisingly, the industry is introducing a range of new products catering to a younger market that is essentially looking to party and hook up. But these younger travelers often are not as affluent as the older generations. Nor do they have as much time.
In addition to running his Topless Travel agency, Giantonio is a partner in Bliss Cruises, one of the top charter companies for lifestyle cruises in the U.S. The company found that when it shortened itineraries from seven to five days and started them at $600 per person vs. upwards of several thousand dollars, the average age of the client dropped by nine years.
Original Group, the company that owns the Desire properties, has plans to launch a Desire cruise product.
The bottom line
One popular perception of nudist or swinger travel is that it is an uncomfortable, pressure-filled environment full of unattractive people and/or perverts. That might seem like a blunt assessment, but it's how attitudes have traditionally skewed.
Yet that perception couldn't be further from reality.
What brings these travelers together is a yearning to be themselves without being judged. I'm not a nudist, nor am I in the lifestyle, but my travels and writing assignments have taken me to places like Hidden Beach and Hedonism II as well as to several parties in New York devoted to sex in public. What I have found is an open, warm and welcoming community. In that way, it's like any club or other organization: You find people with similar interests and everyone is going to get along.
Most travelers to these resorts and cruises are repeat guests, and the majority of the couples I've encountered have been in long, healthy marriages for 20, 25, even 30 years. Everyone participates so that they can write their own adventure, which at the end of the day is really what most travel is all about.
A nude beach sign lets guests know what’s in store beyond that point at Hedonism II.
The bottom line is that agents have to qualify clients to discern what each is looking for in a vacation. Does he or she want only topless-optional by the pool? A place that offers a nude beach? A resort that is completely nude? A full-on pleasure cruise or resort where the only rule is that there are no rules?
Many travel agents find that clients who are new to being naked or new to the lifestyle undergo an evolution. A client who is looking for a topless beach at age 20 might be an agent's biggest Bliss Cruise client by the time he or she is 35.
"There isn't one type of lifestyle person," said Kevin Levee, general manager of Hedonism. "There isn't one type of nudist. It's not a box you can put around people. These travelers want to let their hair down and forget about reality for a few days. They want a nonjudgmental atmosphere.
"It doesn't matter what you look like. It doesn't matter what size you are. You can come here, you can do what you want. As long as you're not hurting yourself or anyone else, no one cares."
Meagan Drillinger is Travel Weekly's Mexico contributing editor and a sex-advice columnist/blogger for Men's Health magazine and MensHealth.com.