Rather ironically, it’s a morning of typical Irish summer weather on the Adriatic on the day that a (fully clothed) Irish journalist arrives to take a glimpse into the subculture of the modern-day nudist camp. We’d just had a day of rain during which temperatures plummeted to 14 degrees and now temperatures are struggling to get up to 20 degree as I arrive at the gate.
This is the Solaris naturist resort near Porec, Istria, Croatia. The enormous 49-hectare (121 acres) site is a haven for those who like to get an all-over tan, with 2.5km of private beach front, eight tennis courts, swimming pools, mini golf, table tennis, boat moorings and a whole raft of water sports – all ready for those who like to do things as nature intended.
Josipa Bonifacichas been involved with naturist tourism in Croatia for several years in both a professional and voluntary capacity. She is marketing manager of Valamar – one of Croatia’s biggest holiday groups that owns a slew of resorts and hotels all over Croatia.
Croatia is the birthplace of the naturist resort. Back in 1932, it was here that the world’s first nudist beach was opened and in 1950, the Croatians were the first to bring us the concept of a naturist holiday package. In fact, this part of Croatia used to have more square footage of campsite devoted to nude than to clothed holiday-makers during the 1980s, says Bonifacichas.
Later on, she shows me around the site in one of the staff cars. Today, there isn’t much appetite for exposing the flesh in the fresh weather and most people seem to have left their clothes on or have forgotten that they’re in naturist paradise.
“We don’t enforce people to take off their clothes,” explains Bonifacichas, “except on the beach. We don’t force the issue with teenagers either . . . when people are at a sensitive age.”
As we circle the site, the air begins to warm up and, sure enough, there is no shortage of naturists – families and couples of all ages and nationalities. It shocks at first; it looks as though some people have emerged from their mobile homes, tents or apartments and simply forgotten to put their clothes on. After a while, however, it all becomes . . . quite a natural sight. It’s exactly like any other camp site, except everyone’s private parts aren’t, well, private.
There are people here seemingly from every walk of life and from many different countries, with Dutch and German vehicle registrations appearing to dominate. The bulk of the holiday-makers seem to be either families with young children or older couples of retirement age, with groups of youths and younger couples only occasionally evident.
Bonifacichas’s company carries out regular research on naturist clients at their facilities. She says that naturist holidaymakers tend to be better educated and better-off than your average tourist.
“Also, they are very loyal guests. For instance, 35 per cent are coming three to five times and 30 per cent of our guests come back more than six times. Overall, more than one-third of our guests return, which is a huge number in the tourism industry.”
There are 13 high-standard naturist resorts in Croatia today but the overall trend since the 1980s has been towards “wild” naturism, where people prefer to practise their naturism in the many secluded coves and beaches along the craggy Croatian coastline.
Over in the world’s leading naturist holiday destination country (France), the popularity of wild naturism and resort-oriented naturism are both increasing, according to Yves Leclerc, vice-president and communications officer of the Fedération Française de Naturisme.
“The number of people taking naturist holidays in France is growing by between 3.5 per cent and 4 per cent per year at the moment. It’s mostly down to strong marketing activity abroad by Atout France (the French equivalent of Fáilte Ireland). One large naturist campsite owner told us that his visitor numbers had increased by 5 per cent each year for the past three years. This doesn’t mean that the numbers of naturists is increasing as quickly as that, but it does show that more and more people are turning towards naturism and towards naturist holidays.”
France receives approximately 3.5 million visitors per year (1.5 million French and 2 million foreigners) coming to their 397 designated naturist zones. It’s a sector that’s worth €300 million to the French tourism industry.
Leclerc runs a naturist campsite resort at Leucat near Perpignan in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of south-west France and notes that amongst the nine different nationalities this year, there were some “very nice” Irish families.
With the imminent arrival of the International Naturist Federation Congress to Ireland next month (at the Lough Allen Hotel & Spa from September 11th to the 14th), the prospect of naturists turning their attention to Ireland is complicated by the lack of any designated naturist areas.
While the practice of naturism is tolerated in traditionally nudist spots, it is still an illegal activity, strictly speaking. It’s governed by two pieces of old legislation and, unlike in France or Croatia, local authorities don’t have the power to officially designate a naturist zone.
That hasn’t deterred Irish people from stripping, however. So what is the attraction?
“There’s nothing in it, really,” says Irish Naturist Association (INA) president Pat Gallagher. “It’s something that you either find out for yourself and enjoy or you don’t. That’s pretty much it.”
I wonder if it’s something that certain people are born with or predisposed to or is there a bit of a naturist in all of us trying to break out?
“You know something, I think that there might be. A good example was when Spencer Tunick came to Ireland a few years ago and he got 6,500 applications from people to go out on a cold morning to be part of something with no clothes on. In the end, they only went with 2,000 in one location and 2,000 in another.”
One Wicklow naturist I spoke to named Barbara had talked about her motivations in becoming a naturist being partially based on a wish to shake off some of the shackles of old Catholic Ireland.
That isn’t the motivation for many, however, and it was not the case for Gallagher. “In my own case, I just sort-of grew into it; it had nothing to do with a kick-back against religion or our parents’ ways or anything like that. A lot of the people that come to us nowadays are people who might have run into a naturist beach while on holidays on the Continent, laughed at it for a day or two, and then joined in themselves and found that they liked it. Then they come back here and ask us if there is anywhere in Ireland they can do it.”
The typical Irish nudist, Gallagher says, is “from about the age of 29 upwards”, even though there is, he adds, a huge youth movement in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
The idea of bringing the International Naturist Federation to Ireland was not an initiative of the INA but of Fáilte Ireland.
“Fáilte Ireland obviously sees that there is potential for tourism (in naturism), even though people would say ‘What about the weather?’ But I just say what about it! You can easily go to France or Spain and have it lash rain for your holiday too.
“In any event, naturists will come to Ireland to play golf or go pony-trekking or go cycling or sight-seeing or whatever, provided that in their down-time, there’s some naturist facility that they can use, such as a beach or something like that. So we’re losing out while there is nothing here in terms of (official) facilities for naturists.”
For anyone interested in getting involved, see the Irish Naturist Association website (irishnaturism.org).
You’ll find lots of information on membership, news and a list of Ireland’s 20-odd unofficial naturist beaches, complete with Google maps for each location.
There are five in Leinster, nine in Connacht and nine in Munster, so if you’re thinking of letting your inner naturist free, this is the year.