The Soviet Union’s position when it came to Cold War tourism was a little different from that of the United States. As what was effectively a police state, the USSR was cautious about letting its citizens free as tourists in the wider world.
Instead, the Soviet Union had a vast government-run domestic tourism industry for the population. Dominated by the Central Trade Union Council, it controlled package tours, industry-affiliated rest homes, and tourist camps, as well as – after 1960 – the health spas that had been the most popular vacation option for Soviet citizens able to acquire a space. The industry was enormous. (The Soviet Union is probably the only country to award an official “Tourist of the USSR” badge to “successful” travellers.) In 1950, with numbers of vacationers still rebounding after the Second World War, there were 2,070 health spas, 891 rest homes, and 81 tourist camps in the Soviet Union. Tourism grew even further during the 1960s, as rising standards of living led to higher expectations. In 1970 11.8 million people used health spas, 5 million the official tourist bases, and between 65 and 160 million traveled without an official itinerary (“wild”). By comparison, only about 1.8 million Soviets traveled abroad, more than half of them to the Socialist countries in Eastern Europe.
As Diane P. Koenker observes in her book Club Red: Vacation Travel and the Soviet Dream, Soviet vacationing was a field which offered a surprising amount of individual choice. While access to spas and rest homes was controlled by a system of vouchers, many Soviets chose simply to travel without one.
Responding to that increasing demand for flexibility, in the 1960s the spa, rest home, and tourist camp were joined by the “pansion,” a more flexible type of vacation complex without the spa’s medical facilities, and even – god forbid – socialist hotels. More and more, the preference of Soviet leisure travelers was for whatever offered more freedom of choice. A 1966 survey showed that 72% of vacationers preferred travel to the rigidity of the spa. As one reader put it, with travel “You are completely free to choose your place of vacation and the method. Even ‘wild’ [unauthorized] resort vacationers cannot boast of such advantages.”
How did the accommodations for Soviet vacationers compare to the bastions of luxury that Hilton erected along the edge of the Iron Curtain? It’s hardly a fair comparison. Despite its many problems, the Soviet vacation system did manage to accommodate millions, if not tens of millions, of people. Some, at least, were satisfied (Christian Noack has found surveys indicated 40% or so of “wild” vacationers declared themselves satisfied with their vacations. The satisfaction rate for authorized vacationers was apparently slightly lower.)
The standard of physical infrastructure, on the other hand, was dismal. The eager Soviet vacationer of the 1970s was accommodated in a standardized five-storey concrete block containing either 250 or 500 beds, two or three to a room. Koenker’s comment on the new, mass-produced accommodations was that they featured “a notable sameness … a Soviet brand analogous perhaps to the orange roofs of Howard Johnson motor lodges of the period.” Even these, though, were an improvement on the previous situation. In 1967, trade union tourism chair Aleksei Khurshudovich Abukov was proud to announce that only 20% of visitors to tourist bases were still accommodated in tents.
Still, there were places were the Soviet Union had the opportunity to sell socialism the way that Hilton sold capitalism. Created in 1929, Intourist was a state agency responsible for handling foreign tourists visiting the Soviet Union and Soviet tourists traveling abroad. (The company was privatized after the collapse of communism. It’s own version of its history is available here.). The foreign face of Soviet tourism, it was responsible for the Soviet Union’s tourism offensive.