In Cuba, American tourists increase demand for hotels

AMY GUTTMAN: Since the U.S. Government eased restrictions on travel to Cuba early last year, the number of American tourists visiting the Caribbean island nation has soared. About 230-thousand went to Cuba in the first 11 months of this year, roughly two-and-half times the number in 2014, when the process of normalizing relations began.

AMY GUTTMAN: Today, eight U.S. airlines are approved to run 20 round-trip flights daily from around the country to Cuba’s capital, Havana.

AMY GUTTMAN: However, Cuba’s hospitality industry has a lot of catching up to do. With few exceptions, hotels are either abandoned or frozen in time…just like the American cars that roll through the streets of Havana, nearly 60 years since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution forced out privately-owned businesses.

AMY GUTTMAN: Along Havana’s storied, seaside boulevard, known as the “Malecon,” state-owned properties like the Hotel Nacional De Cuba, famous for having hosted American Presidents and Hollywood stars, don’t have enough capacity.

AMY GUTTMAN: There are currently 63-thousand hotel rooms in all of Cuba, and far fewer up-to-date, quality hotels than are needed to accommodate what is approaching four million international visitors a year.

AMY GUTTMAN: Since 2014, the Cuban Government has relaxed rules on foreign ownership of hotels. It’s now allowing international chains to build, remodel and manage hotels, as long as they partner with state-owned Cuban tourism companies.

AMY GUTTMAN: France’s Sofitel, Switzerland’s Kempinski, and the American-owned Starwood Group are among those refurbishing and constructing four and five-star hotels in Havana.

Starwood, recently bought by Marriott, has already taken over management of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, now re-branded as Four Points, and it’s renovating a 19th century Havana landmark, The Inglaterra.

AMY GUTTMAN: Though the Cuban government has announced plans to double the island’s hotel capacity by 2020, the current shortage of rooms is a boon for another American-run company, AirBnB. The online platform for homestay bookings has listings in more than a hundred countries. But it says Cuba has become its fastest growing market, as measured by listings.

BRIAN CHESKY: “We estimate now that 20-percent of all Americans that are staying in Cuba are staying in a home with a Cuba host.”

AMY GUTTMAN: AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky accompanied President Obama in March on his historic trip to Cuba, the first by a sitting US President in nearly 80 years. Chesky says Americans from all 50 states have used AirBnB in Cuba since it began operating here a year-and-half ago. He calls this “people to people diplomacy.”

BRIAN CHESKY: “There are hundreds of thousands of friendships that are possible if you bring people together.”

AMY GUTTMAN: This is the third time San Francisco entrepreneur Madelyn Markoe has stayed at the home of Cuban host Fanny Acosta.

MADELYN MARKOE: It is very different. It really feels like you are in someone’s home. A lot of times AirBnB in other places, you know, it can feel very much like you are just renting an apartment. In cuba it’s a full experience from start to finish.

AMY GUTTMAN: Acosta and her husband, Reddy, list three bedrooms in their four bedroom apartment on AirBnB. In addition to Spanish, she speaks French, Italian, Mandarin, and English.

FANNY ACOSTA: This is my way to learn about the rest of the world. I don’t have to go out. The people and the world, they come to me. And we have very, very, very good friends from all over the world.

AMY GUTTMAN: The concept of AirBnB is not exactly new here. Even when Fidel Castro was president, Cubans were permitted to list rooms in their homes on the Internet and rent them to foreign tourists.

AMY GUTTMAN: Since 1997, Cubans have been allowed to supplement their income through casa particulares, or private houses. A symbol of an upside-down anchor near the doorway indicates homes that are licensed by the government to rent rooms.

AMY GUTTMAN: 20,000 homes are registered – 10,000 of them are now listed on AirBnB. Like all hosts, Acosta pays taxes on the income earned.

AMY GUTTMAN: Has business changed since the arrival of AirBnB?

FANNY ACOSTA: Yes, 100 percent. Now we try to keep our rooms available just for the AirBnB requests. This is our way to know they will arrive for sure. If they decide to change, I know in advance, so I can update the calendar again.

AMY GUTTMAN: How busy are you?

FANNY ACOSTA: We are full almost the whole year, because they read about us. Before AirBnB, it’s not possible.

AMY GUTTMAN: So you get financial security?

FANNY ACOSTA: Yes. I’m also learning how to be a businesswoman.

AMY GUTTMAN: A business that pays well for Cuba. Acosta and her husband pocket about $250 per booking after paying AirBnB’s fees. That’s more than the $200 average monthly salary in Cuba. The income helped her pay back the loan from a friend she used to buy the apartment three years ago. To maximize their earnings, she and her husband share their fourth bedroom with their two small children.

AMY GUTTMAN: So, this is quite a sacrifice?

FANNY ACOSTA: I do it with pleasure. I think everything in life is sacrifice.

AMY GUTTMAN: With income from guests and high demand, buildings like these that have been left derelict for years are now being repaired for the rental income.

AMY GUTTMAN: Acosta and other Cubans are investing in renovations and remodelling to accommodate guests.

AMY GUTTMAN: What will you do with this money, now that it’s yours?

FANNY ACOSTA: We are going to fix the elevator.

AMY GUTTMAN: It may be surprising that AirBnB can thrive in Cuba, where the communist regime has banned Internet access from home, except for government officials or employees of foreign companies. Cuba is now installing its first residential broadband service, wiring two thousand homes. And just this week, the government signed a deal with U.S. tech giant Google to place its servers on the island. Universities and offices are equipped with Internet access for their employees, but other Cubans must pay to get online at hotels and in wifi zones in public parks. Without online service at home, AirBnB hosts have come up with work-arounds. Fanny Acosta walks a few blocks to the nearest hotel several times a day and pays to get online.

AMY GUTTMAN: University of Havana Economics professor Patricia Ramos rents out rooms in her home and tutors friends and family helping them create a profile of their properties and manage bookings.

PATRICIA RAMOS: The people have not the culture to interact with the web. To access the internet is not easy in cuba. It is possible to go to these wifi zones, but the speed is not so high. And of course, it’s also a little bit expensive. That’s why it’s not so easy to manage your profile on AirBnB.

AMY GUTTMAN: Soon, Ramos, Acosta, and others may be learning how to use another American travel site: TripAdvisor. The company is now taking bookings for homestays, hotels, and flights to Cuba after winning approval from the U.S. Government last month.

Even as multinational chains are building hotels, Acosta believes there will always be a market for the personal service and cultural exchange that homestays provide.

FANNY ACOSTA: There are some people that feel really good in a casa, and this is what I enjoy. The people who want to stay in a casa and be part of our family.