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.
The Hedonism Playroom at Hedonism II.