It was December 4, 1989, when the so-called exit clauses—aka special permits—were finally abolished, which was not possible to leave former communist Czechoslovakia without (with the exception of several Eastern Bloc countries). For the first time in many years, Czech tourists could travel freely into the world. But at a time when they didn’t have this option, how and where did they travel?
Since 1970, Czech and Slovak citizens (formerly Czechoslovaks) could travel more or less freely only to some countries of the socialist camp, namely Bulgaria, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, and Romania. The visit to these states was covered by a so-called permanent exit clause, which has been part of the passport since that year.
To other countries (including socialist countries) it was not so easy. The Soviet Union and Poland needed a verified invitation; the journey to the West was virtually closed for most of the population.
Even if one wanted to visit one of the Western European republics, they had to undergo an incredible martyrium: first, they had to process an application for a foreign exchange promise addressed to the Czechoslovak State Bank. This was the only official way to get a foreign currency (in a minimum amount). This request had to be recommended by the employer, the school, or the national committee.
Only with a criminal record, then was it possible to apply for an exit clause. This application request had to be approved by the National Committee and the employer, including the working organization of the Communist Party and the special department.
In the case of students, the school, and the Socialist Youth Union, it was only with the clause obtained that a tourist visa could be applied for. At any step, one’s planned trip could have been halted. Moreover, either parents or children could travel at the same time, but not together because part of the family had to stay at home as “hostages” to prevent others from emigrating.
To nudism to East Germany
Husák’s children living in Prague may remember the German Cultural Center, which was based on Národní třída, not far from the Church of St. Voršila. In the second half of the 1980s a remarkable publication was sold there: a photo book of nudist beaches in Rügen.
The white chalk cliffs and the unbridled nudism beneath them became iconic in the years of socialism ending. In addition, there were individual trips to the East German island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.
Despite nudism and interesting rocky panoramas in Jasmund National Park and the Stralsund Marine Aquarium, Rügen did not offer much. In fact, it was relatively windy, and the Baltic Sea was rather cold compared to the more popular Adriatic. Furthermore, it was considerably poorer in observing underwater life. Czech tourists usually slept under the tent in camps, which they had to book in advance.
Nevertheless, Rügen was extremely popular, partly because of the widely practiced, tolerated, and propagated nudism. Partly because the classical socialist black trade worked in its developed form and it was possible to buy any goods that were in short supply in Czechoslovakia– if one managed to carry extra marks (foreign currency allocations were not high).
Journey to the future and years back
In the 1980s, tourism beyond weekdays was also associated with trips to the Black Sea (i.e. to Romania and Bulgaria, which were mostly traveled through Hungary). For Czech tourists, this meant an interesting journey through time. While Hungary tolerated at least partially small business and the existence of the private sector, and since its foreign policy was more open to the West, in Romania—under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu —it was the opposite. As a result, a visit to Hungary meant a half-opened window into a world that, for example, Husak’s children knew only from illegally imported copies of West German magazine Bravo, or from those Western European films that were released by the Central Film Rental.
In Hungary, for example, it was possible to buy postcards with naked women (unthinkable in Czechoslovakia at that time), and a marketplace with a rich offer of vegetables and fruit from private farmers was popular, which was again quite unprecedented in our country.
Meanwhile, Romania was most reminiscent of the reality of some backward outpost of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. A common reality on the roads was donkey-drawn wagons. At the resting places, Czechoslovak tourist buses were immediately surrounded by a bunch of begging children. And the dominant feature of Romania at that time were the herds of stray dogs, which occurred almost everywhere. On the other hand, the country offered breathtaking natural beauty, like the Romanian Carpathians, which were virtually undamaged by civilization.
To the Soviet Union only with an expedition or by invitation
A separate chapter was represented by trips to the Soviet Union, where it was practically impossible with a collective and organized expedition (the only other option was a verified invitation). Officials in the Union were noticeably polite to the Czechs, but this commitment was a little chilling – often it was that they wanted to have the fullest control over the movement of Czech tourists and show their country in the best light.
“My dominant memory of the Soviet Union is mainly that we got there about a month and a half after the Chernobyl disaster, so we all were terrified of what would happen. But when I [reminisce] this is what I like to remember,” said Markéta Kasalická, a student of a secondary medical school, who visited the Soviet Union with a school expedition during the so-called exchange stay.
“They probably wanted to show us the best they had, so they took us to a burn clinic that was super-equipped at the time. They had modern positioning beds to prevent bedsores that I was rolling my eyes on. But it is quite possible that the patients lying on them were from Chernobyl”, Kasalická adds.
She also remembers the taste of Russian ice cream, Russian tea, and leaven. “A strong memory is that I was standing on Arbat classroom in the center of Moscow, and suddenly heard Waldemar Matuška’s song about Prague Mother of Cities. At that moment I had tears in my eyes. After returning home I did not hear her for years, because Matuška just emigrated and stopped playing,” added Kasalická.
Yet, the mecca of socialist tourism was primarily Yugoslavia, especially the Adriatic coast in present-day Croatia. Split, Makarska, Baska Voda, Jelsa, Dubrovnik- these places have many Czech families associated with the most beautiful holidays they have experienced during socialism.
But getting to Yugoslavia was never easy. This country was not on the list of socialist states where it was possible to travel with the so-called permanent exit clause. To travel to Yugoslavia it was necessary to undergo a similar martyrium with obtaining an exit clause as anywhere in the West. The reason was that Yugoslavia has been considered politically not very reliable since President Tito’s times. It was also known for helping Czechoslovak citizens to escape.
It should be added that these suspicions were not entirely unfounded. Yugoslavia in 1968 not only joined the occupation of Czechoslovakia, but 200,000 volunteers from this country wanted to help Czechoslovakia fight Soviet intervention, and Yugoslav officials also opened the arms of Czechoslovak tourists literally.
“When we went to the reception on August 21 at 7:30 pm to pay for our return home, the receptionist showed up completely [and said]: ‘Where do you want to go back? Are you occupied by the Russians, shooting there! I will give you the radio, you must not go home!’,” explained Markéta Krupková, who in August 1968 spent a holiday in a camp in the resort Mlini near Dubrovnik. Since Markéta and other Czech tourists were under the validity of the exit clause at that time—whose exceeding was considered a crime of leaving the Republic—they went to the passport department to confirm the validity of their travel documents.
“The passport clerk was a tall young guy, welcoming us with understanding and participation, [saying], ‘It’s terrible what’s going on with you. Do not go home, do you have a place to sleep?”
We said that we still have accommodation, but that we would need to extend our exit clauses, that we can work. “I’ll arrange the items, don’t worry about your work at all, do you have money?” he replied. “Then he reached into his pocket and opened his own wallet. We were almost shocked,” recalls Krupková.
Until the fall of the socialist regime, Yugoslavia remained one of the most popular—although difficult to reach—destinations, and there were often friendly ties between Czech and Yugoslav citizens. These began to complicate only in the 1990s when Yugoslavia engulfed in a series of war conflicts between its individual republics, which eventually led to its disintegration.
For the Czechs, this war was difficult to understand because they had warm relations with both Croats and Serbs, and even those two nations came against each other during the war.