Even interpersonal relationships suffer. Local girls would rather snag a Westerner for a summer fling because sometimes he will take them shopping in a foreign exchange store or treat them to a drink in a hard-currency bar. Last year the cover for a discotheque along Bulgaria’s sunny seashore was ten levs, for which you received drink tickets. For a West German, who on top of everything else exchanges money on the black market at a fabulously favorable rate, that’s peanuts. For travelers from East Germany, however, it amounts to their allowance for two and a half days.
First-time travelers recognize with frustration the discrepancy between Eastern propaganda and reality. “The things they told us about the model country, the Soviet Union!” complains a tourist from Dresden in Moscow. “The barkeeper was kicking me out while a Texan next to me was relaxing and drinking whisky for twenty dollars because they ran out of change in the hard-currency bar.” “No one should ever say there is no prostitution in the land of Lenin,” the Dresdener continued, “but when the women approach me, the friendliness instantly evaporates when I reply in my Saxon dialect.”
Nevertheless, the man is happy to be able to travel abroad at all. He had to wait five years for the opportunity. Because the offerings of the “Travel Agency of the GDR” are far from sufficient to satisfy the demand of all customers. Thus, the available spaces are allotted in a kind of lottery. At the beginning of the year, all those interested choose from a catalog and receive so-called pre-booking tickets. The unlucky ones are on their own to plan a trip. Daily newspapers are full of advertisements where those eager to travel search for vacation apartments and offer their own homes in exchange. Traveling that way is also much less expensive. Customers of the state-run travel agency have to loosen their purse strings much more than, for instance, West Germans do.
A trip to Bulgaria, which was available to us here for 800 marks last year, cost 1300 marks “on the other side.” A six-day trip to Moscow, on sale here for 499 marks in 1979, cost 800 marks through the GDR travel agency.
But despite all of these impediments, the East Germans are as travel-happy as ever. Although statistics are near impossible to come by, the “Travel Agency of the GDR” supposedly arranges about 1.2 million vacations each year. “If they had another million tours available, they would sell those, too,” believes a tour guide from Dresden. “We just have a lot to make up for.”
Source: Wille Bremkes, “Wenn DDR-Bürger Urlaub machen” [“When GDR Citizens Go on Vacation”], Frankfurter Rundschau, August 30, 1980.
Translation: Allison Brown