Au naturel: nude hikers love the Yukon (from July 8 issue of the Yukon News)
Sitting within earshot of George, a man who today is probably hiking or canoeing or barbecuing wearing nothing but sneakers, are two nosey teenage girls badly pretending to ignore him.
The conversation at a coffee shop takes the route talks about nudism tend to take. But George (not his real name) — 54, tanned as a farmer in July with buzzed salt-and-pepper hair and a moustache — doesn’t let the eavesdropping inhibit him.
Is nudism sexual? “No,” he says, as the girls monitor his answers.
Does it matter if you have a great body? No, he says again.
“So many people are insecure about the quality of their body. That’s one of the things that break down immediately. You see every size shape and form; nobody thinks twice about it.”
What about mosquitoes when you hike? “Above the treeline it isn’t an issue.”
He adds that most people in the summer hike wearing shorts. “All you’re doing is reducing your coverage by about a square foot.”
This week is the 30th anniversary of Nude Recreation Week in North America. It’s a week when nudist clubs open their doors to the clothed masses with events from nude volleyball and tennis to naked art installations, all designed to encourage people to revolt against their cotton, polyester and spandex oppressors.
For a dedicated nudist like George, this week won’t be different from others: he’s naked for almost every non-public activity, weather, prying eyes and practicalities permitting.
But it does highlight a nagging bother for him and several other nudists that what they say is a glaring — and costly — discomfort on the part of Yukon tourism when it comes to topless- and bottomless-tourism dollars.
“I bet there’s more naturists here than in most places because of the individualist nature of northerners,” says George.
Trouble is, with no nudist clubs or nude beaches, we don’t seem to cash in. Doubly frustrating for him is the fact the Yukon also has plenty of European travellers.
At this moment, a light goes off in George’s head.
At Marsh Lake and Lake Bennett, he explains, European people are sunbathing naked all the time.“Why Tourism Yukon pretends that doesn’t exist escapes me,” he says. “If Vancouver can do it, and has for the past 35 years, we wouldn’t exactly be setting a trend here.”
Could it be, as George and other nudists argue, that our conservative politicians and bureaucrats are more frightened about nudism than Yukoners themselves?
Nudism is now big money. According to the American Association for Nude Recreation, the nudist club industry in the US has grown from about $200 million three years ago to more than $400 million today.
Since 2003, says the association, 30 new nudist or clothing-optional clubs have opened in the US and Canada. One, the Bare Necessities Club in Texas, just held its first nude cruise through the Caribbean this February with 2,200 naked souls on board. “It’s already almost sold out for next February,” brags Carolyn Hawkins, spokeswoman with the American nudist association.
The association and The Naturists Society now boast a mostly clothes-free membership of about 75,000 people.
Parts of Canada are in on the action. In Vancouver is Canada’s largest, and most celebrated, public clothing-optional place, Wreck Beach, where people have been bathing nude since the ‘60s.
Also in Vancouver is a plethora of nudist clubs, like the Van Tan Club, which opened in 1939. And for those of you out there who think nudism is a BC-hippie sort of thing, conservative Alberta has the Sunny Chinooks and the Helios campgrounds, family-oriented nudist clubs near Calgary and Edmonton, respectively.
If nudism is a growing industry in North America, it’s positively exploding in Europe. At Cape D’agde, a resort in Southern France, topless and bottomless tourists can enjoy nude banking, dining, shopping, as well as almost five kilometres of nude beach, three hotel complexes and a nude campground.
Clubs are everywhere in France, Germany, Spain and other European countries, says George. The clubs cater to customers who would rather spend their leisure time and money without wearing clothes, he says.
And money they have: the typical nudist enthusiast is a highly educated individual in the upper income brackets of society.
“That’s why it’s an incredible boost to tourism,” says George, who was exposed to social nudism about 15 years ago while traveling in Germany. It immediately made sense to him.
When you see a man lying naked on the beach with his suit beside him, it breaks down barriers, he says. “If you see someone in a suit you have a stereotype of what he’s doing. If you see him naked, he’s just another guy. That’s the attraction.”
Despite our pop-culture obsessions, nakedness is not a sexual activity, he says. Most naturist clubs in Europe and increasingly in North America are family clubs. That approach is typical of most nudists, he says, pointing out that a large segment of Wreck Beach’s sunbathers are under 12.
The worry many newbies have with nudism is predators. Do naturists shun creepy old men gawking at naked people?
“Absolutely,” says George, without taking a breath. “This is where it doesn’t even get subtle. We get right in his face and tell him to get out of here.
“It does happen, but it’s a rarity. The peer pressure is strong.”
Plenty of disorganized nudists in the Yukon are taking advantage of the privacy of the territory’s great empty spaces, too. “My impression is that there are hundreds,” says George.
Stéphane Dêschenes, president of the Federation of Canadian Naturists, has travelled throughout Europe, including a jaunt to a Croatian resort last year with 1,200 campsites, seven kilometres of beach, a nude supermarket and 5,500 tourists.
In Europe, nudist travel isn’t “just massive,” he says, it’s also fully endorsed by most governments. France’s tourism department has an entire arm dedicated to naturism travel and publishes brochures exclusively on those kinds of vacations, he says.
That isn’t quite as true on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Naturism is extremely misunderstood, despite almost 100 years of history in Canada,” says Dêschenes. “There’s a constant suspicion that it’s really about sex.”
However unfounded the suspicions may be, they don’t seem to translate into public condemnation of nudism in Canada.
The federation did a survey in 1999 that showed 2.7 million Canadians would “happily” go to nude beaches if they existed. And those who weren’t interested nevertheless responded “they didn’t care” if others did, says Dêschenes.
“You don’t see naturists downtown; naturists are not interested in upsetting people. We just want a kilometre of beach here and there for us to use.”
What’s preventing that in many Canadian regions is likely politicians, he says, a point he supports through his experience with Hanlan’s Point Beach on Toronto Island.
When first designated as a clothing-optional beach, politicians there were only brave enough to allow nudity at Hanlan’s Point for three years. When that designation passed, Dêschenes was invited as a guest on a Toronto radio call-in show to defend the nudist position to angry callers.
Trouble is, they didn’t materialize. “It made for boring radio,” he says. “The only opposition we had were people that were completely out to lunch.”
One man felt the beach’s proximity to Toronto Island airport could create safety concerns. The pilots, he worried, would become distracted by naked people on the beach, recalls Dêschenes, chuckling.
Hanlan’s Point is still clothing-optional today.
Canadians aren’t likely to go into moral panic over nudism, he says. He feels that’s likely true in the North. “I would bet that most Yukon people are not concerned with it. But the politicians might be concerned that the voters will be concerned.”
About 315,000 people crossed the border into the Yukon last year. Of those, 19,400 were European, says Pierre Germain, director of marketing with the Yukon department of Tourism and Culture.
More arrived via other means, but Germain didn’t have the figures.
To cash in on Europe’s fascination with Yukon mythology, the department has a representative based in Frankfurt, Germany, who works to increase awareness of the Yukon by encouraging German travel reporters to come here and write about the territory, he says.
Four main tourist “segments” are targeted: the long-haul tourer who views the Yukon on a bus; the adventure tourer, who rides a mountain bike or hikes, climbs, camps or canoes; the business and meeting traveller; and niche markets, like festivals, First Nation tourism, dogsledding, snowmobiling, northern lights viewing and others.
“We position the Yukon as an outdoor adventure destination,” says Germain. But that does not include marketing to nudist travellers.
“Nothing specifically is targeting the nudists,” he says. “But those individuals have access to our website, which lists operators in the Yukon that offer products.”
Nudism and other niche tourism markets, like gay and lesbian tourism, are always of interest, concedes Germain. But is the nudist market one the Yukon will engage and target in the future?
“I don’t know,” he says. “We need more research on it.”
The Tourism department’s apparent disengagement with nudism upsets George.
“Tourism and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” he says with a hint of bitterness.
“This is a niche market we’re missing.”