Airbnb now of­fers Cuba lodg­ings

The China Post - - ARTS & LEISURE - BY MICHAEL WEIS­SENSTEIN

The popular on­line home­rental ser­vice Airbnb is al­low­ing Amer­i­can trav­el­ers to book lodg­ing in Cuba start­ing Thurs­day in the most sig­nif­i­cant U.S. busi­ness ex­pan­sion on the is­land since the dec­la­ra­tion of de­tente be­tween the two coun­tries late last year.

For a half-cen­tury, the U.S. trade em­bargo had blocked such busi­nesses from en­ter­ing the Cuban mar­ket. In Jan­uary, how­ever, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion loos­ened a se­ries of re­stric­tions on U.S. busi­ness in an at­tempt to en­cour­age the growth of the is­land’s small pri­vate sec­tor.

Airbnb searches for “Cuba” now turn up more than 1,000 prop­er­ties across the is­land, with 40 per­cent in Ha­vana and the rest in tourist des­ti­na­tions such as Cienfuegos a few hours away on the south­ern coast. The com­pany has been send­ing teams of rep­re­sen­ta­tives to Cuba for three months to sign up home own­ers, and plans to ex­pand steadily in com­ing months.

‘Big­gest mar­kets in

Latin Amer­ica’

“We be­lieve that Cuba could be­come one of Airbnb’s big­gest mar­kets in Latin Amer­ica,” said Kay Kuehne, re­gional direc­tor for Airb- nb, the web­site and mo­bile app that al­lows users to book rooms in more than 1 mil­lion pri­vate homes around the world. “We are ac­tu­ally plug­ging into an ex­ist­ing cul­ture of mi­cro-en­ter­prise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been do­ing for decades what we just started do­ing seven years ago.”

One of the most de­vel­oped and im­por­tant el­e­ments of Cuba’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial sec­tor is a net­work of thou­sands of pri­vately owned rooms and houses for tourists. Start­ing in the post-Soviet eco­nomic cri­sis of the 1990s as homey, bed and break­fast-style al­ter­na­tives to Cuba’s gen­er­ally grim state-run ho­tels, “casas par­tic­u­lares,” or pri­vate homes, have ex­panded into an in­dus­try with op­tions rang­ing from small apart­ments in cen­tral Ha­vana to mul­ti­room beach houses with top-notch food and maid ser­vice.

The Airbnb an­nounce­ment is the lat­est in a se­ries of U.S. busi­ness moves into Cuba. In Fe­bru­ary, New Jer­sey-based IDT Corp. and Cuban state tele­coms firm ETECSA agreed to connect phone calls from the United States di­rectly to Cuba. Pre­vi­ously, they were routed through third coun­tries such as Italy and Spain.

Net­flix and MasterCard have also un­blocked their ser­vices in Cuba, but only a hand­ful of is­lan­ders have con­nec­tions fast enough to stream Net­flix, and most cred­it­card is­suers still pro­hibit trans­ac­tions from Cuba, mak­ing MasterCard’s move largely sym­bolic so far.

The Airbnb move could be the most sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment in terms of putting money in the pock­ets of en­trepreneurs across the is­land and bol­ster­ing them in a stag­nant state-run econ­omy — lead­ing goals for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in warm­ing re­la­tions with Cuba.

“I think this is go­ing to help our busi­ness pros­per, to def­i­nitely im­prove, not just pri­vate busi­ness, but ev­ery­thing here,” said Is­rael Rivero, who owns an im­mac­u­lately ren­o­vated, pre-war apart­ment in cen­tral Ha­vana. He charges US$25 a night per room, but the price will go to US$30 on Airbnb to cover fees and cur­rency ex­change costs.

Kuehne said Airbnb’s plans had been wel­comed by Cuban au­thor­i­ties.

Asked about the ex­pan­sion, the U.S. State Depart­ment said Thurs­day that “we ap­plaud ef­forts to help the Cuban peo­ple, in­clud­ing the nascent pri­vate sec­tor, take ad­van­tage of new op­por­tu­ni­ties to move Cuba to­wards greater open­ness and pros­per­ity.”

Cuba has been wrestling with how to ac­com­mo­date a surge of trav­el­ers since the an­nounce­ment of de­tente. Trips to the is­land have been up nearly 20 per­cent in re­cent months, mostly by non-U. S. trav­el­ers, and many ho­tels are fully booked, par­tic­u­larly the few able to of­fer ser­vice close to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards.

“Airbnb’s mo­men­tous ex­pan­sion into Cuba rep­re­sents the first move by a ma­jor Amer­i­can com­pany to fully seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sented by both our new Cuba pol­icy and the is­land’s bur­geon­ing en­tre­pre­neur­ial sec­tor,” said Ric Her­rero, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of CubaNow, a Cuban-Amer­i­can group that lob­bies for closer ties be­tween the two coun­tries.

For the time be­ing, non-U.S. trav­el­ers will not be able to use Airbnb.

Be­cause of con­tin­u­ing re­stric­tions un­der the U.S. em­bargo, the com­pany’s Cuba list­ing will only be avail­able to U.S. trav­el­ers vis­it­ing un­der one of 12 U.S.-gov­ern­ment ap­proved cat­e­gories of legal travel, rang­ing from pro­fes­sional re­search to re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties.

‘Honor sys­tem’

While vir­tu­ally all U.S. travel to Cuba pre­vi­ously re­quired in­di­vid­ual li­censes from the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment, the Jan­uary changes es­sen­tially shift it to an honor sys­tem by al­low­ing trav­el­ers to fill out a form as­sert­ing they are go­ing for one of the ap­proved pur­poses.

A ma­jor draw­back for the Cuban pri­vate lodg­ing busi­ness has been the dif­fi­culty of rent­ing from over­seas on an is­land with one of the world’s lower rates of In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion and a con­stantly mal­func­tion­ing phone sys­tem. While dozens of web­sites such as TripAd­vi­sor have list­ings for lodg­ings, most only pro­vide phone num­bers or email ad­dresses for own­ers in­stead of the quick on­line book­ing and guar­an­teed reser­va­tions that Airbnb will of­fer, as it does in more than 190 coun­tries.

“Our plan is to make it sub­stan­tially eas­ier,” Kuehne said.

While that sen­ti­ment holds for trav­el­ers, own­ers still have to grap­ple with the lack of ac­cess to the In­ter­net across the is­land. Most will have to turn to pricey state-run In­ter­net cen­ters or ho­tel lob­bies to check on reser­va­tions. And with much of the in­ter­na­tional bank­ing sys­tem off-lim­its to Cubans due to U.S. sanc­tions, own­ers will de­pend on friends or busi­ness as­so­ciates to re­ceive pay­ments from Airbnb in non-U.S. bank ac­counts.

Collin Laverty, owner

of Cuba Ed­u­ca­tional Travel, one of the largest firms or­ga­niz­ing group tours to Cuba, said home own­ers have al­ready been in­vest­ing in ameni­ties such as cen­tral air con­di­tion­ing and im­proved wa­ter pres­sure in or­der to be able to charge far more than US$25 a night for ba­sic ser­vice.

“You’re start­ing to see places that can com­pete with three- and four-star ho­tels,” Laverty said.

AFP

This Dec. 18 file photo shows a tourist tak­ing pic­tures in Ha­vana, Cuba.

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