Cuba listed on Airbnb for the first time, as US eases travel and economic restrictions

Visitors to the Airbnb site will now find 1,000 properties all across Cuba, of which about 40 per cent are in and around the capital, Havana

The online site that offers travelers rooms and apartments as alternatives to traditional hotels and inns, Airbnb, yesterday unveiled listings on Cuba for the first time, marking the most significant incursion yet of an American company into the island’s economy since the two countries began their rapprochement.

Until today, Cuba was one of only a tiny handful of nations beyond the company’s reach along with Iran and North Korea. But Airbnb has now moved swiftly to take advantage of an easing of economic and travel restrictions between the US and Cuba announced by President Barack Obama last December.

Visitors to the Airbnb site will now find 1,000 properties all across Cuba, of which about 40 per cent are in and around the capital, Havana.  The company said it has spent the last three month signing up local owners to make their properties available on the site.

For now, they will be offered only to US travelers. The venture will also be limited by restrictions that still exist on travel from the US to Cuba.  As of now there are 12 categories of traveler allowed by the US government to visit the island, like family members of Cubans or professionals going there for meetings.

 

The joint announcement by Mr Obama and President Raul Castro at the end of last year vowing to restore diplomatic relations and working towards an eventual lifting of the 55-year-old US embargo on the island has piqued widespread interest among US businesses eager to open shop on the island.

That enthusiasm was in evidence at a Cuba opportunities conference at the Nasdaq exchange in New York on Wednesday attended by about 200 executives and investors.  But a senior Obama administration official warned that they would need patience as Cuba attempts to emerge from decades of isolation.

“We are embarking on a process that is complicated,” Stefan Selig, the Commerce Department’s undersecretary for international trade, noted. “We should remember Cuba is a small country, and a poor country. I don’t think we should be overly excited about the near-term economic prospects.”

Even though Mr Obama has lowered some obstacles to doing business with Cuba, for example allowing US telecoms companies to export there and making travel there more easy, he does not have the power to lift the embargo as such.  That must be done by Congress which for now seems ill-disposed to do so.

But the move by Airbnb will not go unnoticed by corporations, including other travel industry players like cruise lines, with an eye on Cuba.   US companies that have already announced first steps into the Cuban marketplace in recent weeks have included Netflix, MasterCard and American Express.

“We couldn’t be more excited that, starting today, licensed US travelers will now be able to experience the unique culture and warm hospitality that makes the island so special through our new Cuban community,” Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk said in a statement.

Airbnb had a special advantage in Cuba because of the pre-existing network of so-called ‘casas particulares’, or private homes for rent, that the regime allowed to spring up in the 1990s as the country struggled to survive the severing of support from Moscow.  Over the years, those homes have become an increasingly popular option for overseas visitors to the island where hotel rooms are often oversold.

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