In the planned economy, travel was organized and subsidized by the state. The largest travel providers in the GDR were the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB), the youth organizations and above all the companies. At the end of the 1980s, the latter arranged 3.3 million holiday trips, the FDGB 1.8 million, all in their own holiday resorts. There was hardly any private accommodation.

Those who wanted a less tightly organized holiday went camping. From the middle of the ’60s, individual tourism increased, as more and more people had their own car. Behind the Trabi hung a Klappfix, a camping trailer from which a tent could be unfolded. According to the operating instructions, it offered space for four sleeping holidaymakers or, during the day, a table, two seats, and two propane gas plates. A fire extinguisher was supplied as standard.

Only a few people traveled to socialist foreign countries. In 1988, 200,000 people went to the Soviet Union, Hungary and the CSSR, each with around 100,000. Places for trips abroad were limited, also for political reasons. In the meantime, visa-free trips were made to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. But when the Solidarnosc movement found more and more supporters in Poland, travel was restricted again in 1980. Even to the Soviet Union, only a few trips were permitted, mostly group trips with the Stasi.

Those who traveled abroad individually also had a money problem. Foreign currencies were only available to a limited extent, so surviving required some creativity. Later, Inge Winterfeld worked in the Interflug travel agency and occasionally got free flights. The family traveled to Bulgaria. There, acquaintances of acquaintances left them two rooms in exchange for bras and nightdresses, salami and canned meat from the GDR. The family also brought their own food with them in their suitcases. “We ate our cans in the evening,” Inge Winterfeld remembers. The family saved the scarce foreign exchange to buy things that did not exist in the GDR, once even an oil radiator.

If, on the other hand, you took an organized holiday, money was not a problem. The holidaymakers themselves paid only a third of the costs; the rest was donated by the state, trade union or company. “You could always afford the holiday without saving the whole year on it,” says Erika Buch. Only 30 to 35 Marks cost the teacher two weeks of full board per person, who earned about 1000 Marks per month.

The fleet of GDR cruise ships, to which the historian Andreas Stirn dedicated his dissertation, was a curious outgrowth of the system-stabilizing holiday policy. A ship for the working class was to be the MS “International Friendship,” a reward for all who rendered outstanding services to socialism. The first of a total of three cruise ships, “Völkerfreundschaft,” went on a journey in 1960, accompanied by propagandistic music.

This luxury cost: a two-week trip to the Baltic Sea 800 Marks per person, 3000 Marks a trip to Cuba. The journeys were to be subsidized for deserving workers, but from the company premium funds, which were never sufficient for smaller companies. Thus most of them were excluded from the cruise. Anyway, it was over with some particularly luxurious aspects of the voyage from the mid-1960s, after several passengers had fled the ship. A total of 225 people in the context of cruises

Traveling to Cuba was exceptional. Pensioners, like the couple in the passports, were allowed to go more easily. They did not have to give special reasons. This can probably be explained by the fact that, as pensioners, they received state social benefits and that their possible non-return did not mean a loss of labor but rather cost savings.

However, in October 1962, the ship “Völkerfreundschaft” set course for Cuba for the first time. But the expectations of the holidaymakers were not to be fulfilled. The Cuban crisis intervened, and the trip was canceled.

When the Ilyushin II-62 was put into service in 1970, INTERFLUG (the only East German airline) also flew to Vietnam and Cuba. The introduction of this type was overshadowed by the crash of the first aircraft delivered on 14 August 1972 in Königs Wusterhausen, during which all 156 people died on board.

From 1976 onwards, a stopover in Gander/Newfoundland, Canada, was necessary for the holiday flights of the better-earning East Germans to socialist Cuba, who had been thoroughly examined by the Stasi. (There were also Cubans, Finns or foreign exchange earning West Berliners on board.) The IL 62 had to be refueled, and for safety reasons, all passengers had to leave the plane. When boarding for the onward flight one or the other did not manage to be on board in time, despite the omnipresent Stasi guards. Not only East Germans but also Cuban students used Gander to escape. The Canadian airport police were accommodating towards asylum seekers. In 1989, shortly before the fall of the GDR, the GDR Interflug had two Airbus A310s that could fly non-stop from Schoenefeld to Cuba.

East German couple traveling 1974 from Schoenefeld airport to Cuba
East German passport with a visa for Cuba – 1974

I have several GDR travel documents in my archive, but to find one with a Cuba visa is pretty rare. Hence, this passport is an excellent document of East German passport and travel history.

By the way: When Fidel Castro traveled to the GDR in June 1972, he donated the “Isla Ernesto Thälmann” (Ernst Thälmann) to it. A beach of the island was renamed in GDR beach.