Is there anything better than travelling the world, getting to know foreign cultures and relaxing in the sun?
Travel planning looked a little different for residents of the GDR: most holidays were spent in their own country or one of the neighbouring socialist states. Still, the GDR had its own airline that flew even as far as Cuba, China and Mozambique.
It’s still there, the Haus des Reisens (house of travel). With its 18 floors and height of 67 metres it’s the tallest building on Alexanderplatz after the Park Inn hotel. Until German reunification, this was the place to visit when you wanted to book your holiday. It was the HQ of ‘Reisebüro der DDR’ (the state travel organization) and had counters for flight and train tickets inside and outside the GDR.
Beach chair. Image courtesy of antjeschade / photocase.de
Tupolevs and Antonovs
Flights were operated by Interflug, the national airline of the GDR (1963-1990). Interflug was based at Schönefeld Airport (East Berlin) and focused on flights to Comecon countries like Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, China, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The aircrafts were almost completely Soviet-made, starting with the Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop in the 1960s and followed by many Tupolevs and Antonovs. It wasn’t until 1988 that an exception on the trade embargo enabled Interflug to buy an Airbus A310. It was hardly used by Interflug, since it was delivered on 26 June 1989, just over 2 months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Tickets were cheap, since Interflug wasn’t an IATA member and therefore not bound by international ticket prices agreements. This was also tempting for West Germans and especially West Berliners who didn’t live too far away from Schönefeld Airport. Therefore Interflug started offering flights to the Mediterranean and Black Sea coast. East Germans couldn’t take them, since they weren’t allowed to travel to these countries. Shuttle buses brought the West Germans from the West Berlin bus station to Schönefeld Airport and an extra border crossing was even opened close to the airport.
Schönefeld Airport. Image courtesy of By calflier001 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Why Not Stay Here?
It wasn’t until 1968 that East Germans were allowed to travel to the Soviet Union and not until 1973 that Cuba became an option – only for the political elite though, since tickets were unaffordable for regular workers. For nearby socialist brother states like Czechoslovakia, Poland (both until 1972) and Hungary, a visa was necessary. But why leave the country? Tourism within the GDR was strongly promoted by the GDR government. The islands Rügen and Usedom were the most popular destinations, together with the beautiful surroundings of Thüringer Wald and Sächsische Schweiz.
Holidays were a state affair in the GDR: whether you chose to go camping or to stay in a hotel, it was always owned by the state. More than 50% of all overnight stays were in hotels of the state’s trade union FDGB (19% – up to 2 million overnight stays per year) or residences dedicated to workers from a certain profession – and therefore also owned by the state (34%). These accommodations were affordable for everyone.
You had to be lucky though, because there was never enough availability for everyone. Beds in FDGB Homes had to be requested months ahead and only a happy few – the ‘best socialists’ – actually managed to get one. In the 1980s, there were 680 homes with 130,000 beds; statistically people would get a bed every 5 years.
The location was always first-class, even though most homes weren’t too luxurious – a shared bathroom wasn’t an exception. The FDGB Home in Klink (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) was an exception: not only was it located directly at a lake, but it also had an indoor pool, restaurants, bar, its own beach and full-board meals.
Camping for Everyone
Prefer to sleep in your own tent? 26% of all holidays at home were spent on the state’s campsites, 4% at an ‘Intercampingplatz’ (also accessible for people from western countries). The GDR had a total of more than 500 campsites, some containing up to 5,000 pitches. They also weren’t luxurious, but almost always located at a lake or the sea. The ‘Klappfix’ or ‘Campifix’ folding trailers were just as famous at the Trabant.
Finding a pitch at a campsite was less of a problem than getting a bed in a hotel, unless you wanted to go camping during summer holidays. Even when you sent in your letter of request to the ‘central camping agency’ months ahead, there was always a chance of being disappointed. In that case there was only one option left: spending your holiday at your own ‘Dacha’.
Finding that GDR Charm
Want to get the feeling of East German travelling? Most of it has disappeared, but some is left if you know where to look. A good start is Schönefeld Airport, which still breathes that GDR flair – and will keep doing so until the nearby Berlin Brandenburg Airport finally opens. I would also recommend looking for the old Interflug aircrafts that can still be found in several former GDR locations. I stumbled upon two in Leipzig; one of them houses a restaurant that was unfortunately closed. The campsites have been renovated, but I was lucky enough to find one in Thüringen that still had some of the original cabins. Some of them were still in use, others were little time machines with the interior still partly intact. Quite a lot of the FDGB Homes are still waiting for a new owner and haven’t been touched for decades.
“Our” campsite in Thüringen, back in the days. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans