Three quarters of a century after a “royal skinny dip” made it a pioneering nudist destination, Croatia is striving to attract more of the world’s growing army of “nakationers”.
“At Kandarola nudists can find their own piece of paradise, with peace and a little space just for themselves without being disturbed,” Nedjeljko Mikelic, head of the tourist board on the northern island of Rab, told AFP.
The Kandarola rock and pebble beach, on the Croatian island of Rab, is where Britain’s King Edward VIII and his future wife, American socialite Wallis Simpson, famously went for a nude swim in 1936.
Nudists had been known to visit Rab as early as the turn of the 20th century but the royal couple’s dip sealed the spot’s global fame as nudist resort and is considered the founding moment of Croatian naturism.
Kandarola has also been known as English Beach ever since and nudist beaches have mushroomed along Croatia’s Adriatic coast and its myriad idyllic islands, National Naturists Association head Davorin Zugcic said.
Now local tourism professionals feel they can do more to cash in on less high-profile but more frequent clothes-free holidaymakers.
Europe’s first commercial naturist resort was Koversada camp, which opened on the northwestern Istria peninsula 50 years ago, when Croatia was still part of Yugoslavia.
Originally located on a tiny eponymous islet with a thick tree cover and secluded nudist beaches, Koversada is now a sprawling naturist complex.
Guests used to be accommodated in so-called textile camps and hotels, but they can now bare all 24/7 and enjoy various clothing-optional activities.
“Naturism means freedom. We are completely relaxed in this wonderful, peaceful place,” said Katalin Reigl, a 63-year-old doctor from Hungary who has been a devoted visitor for three decades.
Sitting with her husband Endre outside their camper, she said that Koversada had become like a second family home.
“Our son and our two grand-daughters learned to swim here,” Katalin said, admitting that the two girls, now teenagers, no longer want to take part in the family holidays on Koversada.
Slovenian administrator Mojca Likar and her husband Zmago have also been regulars for more than 20 years.
“Naturists are different, rather easy going people. We made a lot of good friends here,” Zmago said.
Primoz Grasic is one of them. The 43-year-old Slovenian musician was not familiar with naked recreation until he met his naturist wife and quickly got used to it.
“I believe it was a very good and a very healthy choice,” he said while having a drink with the Likar family.
The camp now covers 120 hectares (almost 300 acres) and has five kilometres (three miles) of beaches. Most people walk around in their birthday suit but they are requested to put on clothes when going to a shop or a restaurant.
“Naturists are usually loyal guests, they come to the same place for years and generations,” camp manager Nenad Skuflic told AFP.
“They have only one wish, that this remains a purely nudist camp.”
Most of the naturist tourists in Croatia are Germans, who account for around 40 percent of Koversada’s 4,700 guests. They are followed by Slovenians, Austrians, Hungarians and the Dutch.
While many Croatians enjoy the occasional dip in the buff, few visit naturist resorts, making up less than one percent of Koversada’s visitors.
The movement’s heyday in the Mediterranean country was the 1980s though global naturism is picking up, according to the National Naturists Association.
But Croatia has lost its top spot as a naturist destination to France and Spain, said the association’s head, Zugcic.
In Koversada, Skuflic remembers the days when the resort used to accommodate 10,000 guests and believes the industry has a chance to adapt and grow.
“Nudism is the first step towards naturism. The issue is how to attract nudists to become naturists,” he said, explaining the nuance he makes between people who strip on the beach and those who go to special resorts.
Croatia currently has 11 naturist camps, but also dozens of nudist beaches both “official” and “informal”.
The website of the Croatian tourism board proudly boasts that the Island of Rab is “the birthplace of nudism” and reports that US cable news channel CNN recently included it in a list of top ten world islands for tourists with alternative tastes.
It is estimated that some 15 percent of more than 10 million tourists that visit Croatia each year are occasional nudists. There were no figures available for the number of tourists staying in naturist resorts.
The tourism industry is the key sector of Croatia’s recession-hit economy, making up some 18 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).