SAS: Bucket and spade or hammer and sickle? The sad realities of a socialist holiday.

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By Jeremy Hutton, Policy Analyst.

Over past decades travelling the world has become easier than ever, a triumph of technology and free markets. As a result, the amount of trips that Britons are taking each year are near record highs, and that should come as no surprise. A century ago travelling to Australia would have taken around 40 days aboard ships. Now, you can do it in a single flight.

Yet not every country has embraced the opportunities offered by easier and cheaper travel. In fact, throughout the 20th century and up to the present day, many reclusive socialist countries have imposed rigorous travel restrictions that made overseas trips all but impossible.



As late as 2013, Cuba maintained stringent travel restrictions which made it very difficult to go abroad. To leave the country you would have to spend hours queueing up outside the Havana emigration offices from early in the morning, just to guarantee an appointment. But even then departure was not guaranteed.

The costs of leaving was significant. First of all you would need a letter of invitation from whomever you were visiting, for which there was a fee of $200. Then you would need a further $150 dollars for the exit permit itself, which on its own was equivalent to more than seven times the average monthly salary.

If you were a graduate professional, or a doctor for example, you would face further restrictions still, such as gaining permission from a government minister.

And then, having spent possibly years saving up enough money, you would only be allowed to leave for a maximum of 11 months or face permanently losing the right to reside in Cuba.

Since then things have improved somewhat, but don’t let recent reforms fool you. Cubans still suffer greatly from state oppression and the 2013 relaxation of emigration rules has, ironically, proven it. Since 2013 the number of Cubans emigrating has surged. Cuba may look like a paradise to the typical tourist, but to an average Cuban it is anything but.

Source: BBC


Soviet Union

They didn’t call it the Iron Curtain for nothing. Travelling beyond the borders of the Soviet Union was notoriously difficult for Soviet citizens. If you wanted to leave your country, overcoming the bureaucracy was an expedition all in itself.

Here we go, take a deep breath!

If a Russian of the 1970s wanted to head to the West, or even just another socialist state, they needed a cast iron reason to do so. First of all, you would need to be part of an organisation such as a trade union, a government department or a business with some sort of overseas interest. Your superior would then have to issue a document explaining why the trip was necessary.

The next step was for the state to approve the request and issue the travel permit. This was the hardest part, and the usual point of refusal. If you were turned down, there was no opportunity to appeal.

But this wasn’t the end of the road, far from it! Next you would have to get a reference letter from your employer and ‘political curators’. (Whatever that means?)

After this you would go for an interview with a panel. You’d have to be careful with your answers to their questions though, or else you could be barred from overseas travel for several years!

After a medical exam and another round of form-filling, your passport was finally put in the post and sent to your workplace. You wouldn’t be allowed to keep it at home, and whilst you had it, your ‘internal’ passport would be withdrawn.

And at this point the notorious KGB would have to issue a statement saying it didn’t object to your trip, and the bureaucratic nightmare would be (almost) over. All you’d have to do next is organise the trip with the Intourist Soviet travel agency, doubtless with another round of box-ticking and form-filling.

And if the bureaucracy wasn’t enough to make you think twice about a holiday, maybe the Soviet air safety record would. Soviet planes were infamous for their poor safety record, in the case of the Tu-104 passenger plane almost one fifth of those built crashed, killing over 1,000 people.

Source: Russia Beyond



East Germany

It’s fair to say that life in East Germany was far from as restrictive as in the Soviet Union proper, but nonetheless residents of East Berlin lacked much of the choice of their kin on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Like the Soviet Union, East Germans had to head to the state travel agency, in their case the Reisebüro der DDR.

Despite East Germany hosting an international airline, East Germans could only use it in a relatively small number of cases. Ironically, the airline (Interflug) became popular with West Germans, who could secure cheaper tickets because East Germany was not an IATA member. As such, Interflug started offering flights to locations that East Germans were not allowed to go, purely for the commercial benefit.

East Germans meanwhile could typically only visit fellow countries in the Warsaw Pact, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland. Although some long-distance locations such as Cuba became possible, the cost of such a trip was extremely for the average citizen.

For the average ostdeutscher however, a ‘staycation’ was the order of the day. Yet, even these could be found wanting. Due to a shortage in state-owned hotels, you might only be able to get a bed once every five years. Most East Germans would stand a good chance of getting a pitch at a state-owned campsite, but even this wasn’t a sure thing.

Source: Central Berlin blog


North Korea

The reclusive socialist state on the Korean peninsula has become surprisingly open to tourists in recent years. But expect to leave your freedoms behind at the border, because once you enter North Korea you live under their rules.

To start, privacy is not a thing when visiting North Korea, and neither is liberty. You can only go as part of a group tour and will be accompanied at all times. You won’t have a say as to where you go, and what you take photographs of is highly regulated.

And don’t even consider speaking freely in North Korea. Any attempts to undermine the propaganda of the North Korean state could seriously endanger you. In North Korea, the government decides what fact is, and any attempt to argue with it could see you imprisoned.

But at least as a foreign citizen (except Americans) you can visit North Korea. Those born native to North Korea can’t even travel freely around their own country, let alone go abroad. Any attempts to escape the country mean that any family members left behind could be punished in repercussion. It's no wonder that North Koreans aren't the most regular holidaymakers...

Source: Borders of Adventure

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