Airbnb capitalizes on Cuban traditions to grow
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Airbnb has grown rapidly in Cuba because it took advantage of two
well-established patterns: the tradition of renting out rooms to
travelers to earn extra money and the kindness of friends and neighbors
with Internet connections.
Since launching in Cuba on April 2 with 1,000 listings at casas
particulares, private homes that rent rooms or in some cases an entire
house or apartment, San Francisco-based Airbnb has more than doubled its
Cuban listings to around 2,000.
Even Airbnb is surprised by how quickly the concept has taken off in
Cuba. “We were really surprised by the quick uptake, especially since we
hadn’t done much promotion in Cuba,” said Kay Kuehne, regional director
for Airbnb in Latin America.
“In San Francisco, it took three years to grow to 1,000 listings,” he
said. “We’ve been very happy with the launch both in the Cuban community
and in the American community.” Americans still can’t visit Cuba as
tourists, but they can travel to Cuba under 12 authorized categories
such as on people-to-people tours or for educational activities and
Cuba has become Airbnb’s most searched site in Latin America, Kuehne
said. About 40 percent of the listings are in Havana but 30 towns and
cities across Cuba also have listings.
Among the reasons for the rapid growth is that Cubans have decades of
experience renting out extra rooms to travelers. The government first
allowed Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes in 1997 and operate
their casas particulares as businesses, but the concept became popular
as an under-the-table enterprise in the early 1990s during the special
period when the economic crisis prompted Cubans to look for a source of
With more recent changes that have allowed Cubans to rent more than two
rooms and hire employees who aren’t family members to help with cooking
and housekeeping, the popularity of the casas as a self-employment
option has soared. The government recently said there are 8,000 rooms
for rent in casas particulares across the island.
Building on an existing system greatly benefited the Airbnb launch, said
Kuehne. “Some of our casas have been in business for 10 or 15 years.
They really know what they are doing.”
Some of the more sophisticated casas particulares maintain their own
websites and some are listed on European booking sites, but before the
Airbnb launch, it was difficult for Americans to search for and book a
wide range of casas online
Internet penetration in Cuba is low — only about 5 percent have access
to the global Internet although more can communicate with a domestic
Intranet — and that could be a big problem for an online booking site.
But here too Airbnb has built on an existing pattern in Cuba society to
help ameliorate the difficulties: Those who do have Internet often
charge fees to provide access to friends and neighbors.
For casas without Internet, Airbnb has set up a platform of
Internet-connected “hosting partners” who can manage inquiries and
receive bookings for casas without online access, said Kuehne. Such
hosting partners receive around 5 Cuban convertible pesos (around $5)
per reservation on rooms that average 25 to 30 CUCs, he said.
“What Airbnb does is provide the platform and the tools so Cubans can
become successful hosts,” said Kuehne.
Airbnb also has extended its host guarantee of up to $1 million to cover
damages caused by guests at Cuban casas, he said.
The listings and prices vary widely depending on location and amenities.
A room at Casa Las Marias, a colonial house in the historic district of
Camaguey, for example, rents for $16 a night. There’s no A.C. but the
hosts also offer breakfast, dinner and laundry service if guests want them.
Tamara Castellanos, who recently signed up for Airbnb but has yet to
receive guests from the booking service, does have Internet. “It’s quite
difficult, but if it doesn’t work at home, you can always go to the
hotels,” she said.
She has two Airbnb listings: one in Old Havana for a double room with
private bath, safe deposit and air conditioning that rents for $50 a
night and another two-bedroom apartment ($57 per night) in Havana’s
Lawton neighborhood. This one she advertises as a stay in an “authentic
Cuban neighborhood,” complete with balcony overlooking Havana Bay.
She’ll also rent the entire Old Havana flat, which has a second bedroom,
living room with TV and small kitchen for $90 per night.
“We’re so happy to join Airbnb,” said Castellanos in a phone interview.
“I’m seeing more Americans in Havana now so I really hope they will
book.” She heard about Airbnb from a friend and jumped on the chance to
Castellanos, a former hotel bartender, has been in the casa business for
about three years and has two employees who help with cleaning and other
“I love to receive guests. You work really hard but this is good for my
family,” said Castellanos, who is married and has three children.
For casas that need professional photos for their listings, Airbnb will
hook them up with Cuban photographers. “We’re generating income for
photographers as well,” said Kuehne.
Castellanos said that former guests took some of the pictures that
appear in her listings. “You know people help each other out in Cuba,”
Source: Airbnb capitalizes on Cuban traditions to grow | Miami Herald
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