For those of you who have travelled to North Korea – whether with Young Pioneer Tours or with one of the less fun DPRK travel agencies – you will likely be familiar with the requirements for visiting the country. The two most important of these requirements are travelling with a tour agency, and receiving an invitation from the state-owned Korean International Travel Company (KITC) back when the USSR was still running it was quite a similar process to get in the country and the company that did it all was Intourist.
Such rigid travel requirements are comparatively rare these days, but they were very common during the Cold War era, where Mao’s China and every country behind the Iron Curtain had similar restrictions on tourism.
The Big Kahunah in the Soviet Union was the state tourism agency of INTOURIST. They not only ran the tours but put out some truly pimpin’ Soviet-kitsch advertisements, that we at YPT may or may not be guilty of occasionally repurposing due to their awesome design.
Similarly to North Korea’s KITC, INTOURIST didn’t just run tours but also ‘owned’ hotels and gift shops throughout the USSR (inverted commas because, as a state-controlled company, they didn’t really own anything). We quite often stay in former INTOURIST hotels when visiting the former Eastern Bloc; by far the most iconic of these is the legendary Hotel Aist in Tiraspol, Transnistria, which is the most gloriously rundown Soviet relic you’ll ever have the privilege of staying in.
INTOURIST tours also sported mandatory guides that spoke excellent English and were Soviet citizens in good standing – again, much like their Korean counterparts.
Up until recently, China operated a not-dissimilar model; China International Travel Services (CITS) was the INTOURIST/KITC equivalent, and it particularly notable for surviving the transition from a communist to a capitalist model.
Whilst the USSR wasn’t exactly competing with Spain for Western tourist numbers, tourism there was certainly more common than one might think. There were even Soviet-affiliated Western tour companies, such as Progressive Tours (funded by the Communist Party of Great Britain), bringing card-carrying Western commies (likely not too many Americans, though) to view the socialist paradise firsthand.
Keep your eye out for INTOURIST posters and memorabilia when travelling through the former USSR!.