NEW YORK – Thanks to the growing number of plus-size-friendly vacation packages, heavier-set folks are having their day in the sun.
With places like Mexico's Freedom Paradise, services that cater to the XXL crowd and plus-size travel accessories, the dream of a worry-free vacation has become a reality for those whose weight can be an obstacle.
Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) say nearly 65 percent of Americans are overweight — 31 percent are considered obese (search). With numbers like that, it seemed imminent that a plus-size travel market would pop onto the scene — and it has.
"They have a really great time and aren't judged on their body," said Liz Nickels, owner of Big Adventures, a company that hosts scuba-diving excursions for the larger crowd.
"Being around other plus-sized women helps them feel more comfortable," said Nickels, a zaftig woman herself, who began the company to provide solace to those who've been shunned for putting on a bathing suit.
As a way to keep up with the demands for extra-large accommodations, many hotels offer features such as wider spaces to maneuver in, hand-held showers and even shower benches.
"There are bigger doors, bigger rooms and more hotels with elevators," said Hotels.com representative Shuntel Garret, who has noticed an increase in the demand for more user-friendly rooms.
And getting to the vacation destination is no longer a problem for the not-so-svelte thanks to seatbelt extenders, like those from Extend-IT, which can be bought for as little as $59.95.
But the ultimate in plus-size vacationing lies within the confines of Mexico's Freedom Paradise, a 112-room resort opening this month, which urges guests to "Live Large, Live Free."
The hotel, which caters to people of all sizes, has broad doorways, reinforced furniture and extra large chairs. It also boasts a secluded beach to protect against the stares that can occur on public beaches.
"It's not a hotel just for large people. It's a size-friendly place where anyone can enjoy a holiday," said owner Jurrian Klink, a Dutchman who thought up the idea while observing the behavior of overweight guests at his former hotel. "What we noticed was that a lot of oversized people don't feel comfortable at resorts."
Klink pulled out all the stops when creating the size-friendly utopia. Staff members of all sizes were hired, psychologists were contacted and low-fat menus were drawn up for those wanting to watch their waist.
Advocates of specialized extra-large vacations recognize that society's prejudices often impact people's ability to feel comfortable even on vacation.
"In an ideal society, there would be no fat prejudice and fat people should be able to go to a regular resort. But, it's not a perfect world," said Linda Omichinski, founder of HUGS, an anti-dieting self-esteem promoting organization. "This is a step for people to be in an environment they are comfortable in."
But not everyone is sold on the idea of hefty hideaways.
"I have a real problem with this. It's almost a turn-off," said Nancy Lenhart, owner of Camp La Jolla, a California weight-loss and fitness camp. "If you talk about oversized beds and doorways you are throwing it up in their face."
Health factors are also a concern, Lenhart pointed out.
"The heat and humidity factor strikes a big bell," said Lenhart, who feels that not only is there a potential for physical health risks but also psychological ramifications.
"[Overweight] people want to be normalized. What we need to do with all people is normalize them into a local lifestyle. They shouldn’t be stigmatized," Lenhart said, while noting that a vacation geared toward the heftier population may perpetuate the stereotype that larger people can't do what the rest of society can, thus excluding them from the mainstream.
Still many find that their extra efforts are much appreciated.
"The women who join me are so supportive," said Debbie Jacobs, owner of Explorations in Travel, a company that for the past seven years has run hiking and canoeing trips for women over 40, many of whom are on the heavier side.
"The atmosphere is very accepting," added Jacobs. "If someone wants to try what we offer, no matter what she looks like, we are going to say 'Come along.'"