When President Obama’s administration opened the door to improve relationships with Cuba, Airbnb announced that it would offer accommodations to guests from around the world. Airbnb started by licensing U.S. travelers’ accommodations in April 2015, and last April 2016 the U.S. Department of Treasury granted special authorization to allow the company to advertise accommodations in Cuba to non-U.S. travelers. Today, Cuba is the fastest growing market in Airbnb history.
Since we are U.S. citizens it is difficult, if not impossible, to use our U.S. based credit and debit cards in Cuba. We knew we would have to exchange our dollars for Euros before we arrived in Cuba because U.S. dollars are not accepted and we would be charged a hefty 13% commission if we exchanged dollars for CUCs.
Cuba is predominantly a cash society. Even though Cuba is one of the safest countries we have visited, mainly because the people are petrified of the government if any tourists are harmed, we didn’t like the idea of carrying around large wads of cash.
Therefore, Airbnb was a great option because we could pay online in full with our U.S. credit cards. We stayed in two Airbnbs, one in Havana and the other in Trinidad. Now, we’ve stayed in Airbnbs all over the world, and Cuba’s Airbnbs are a little different.
Reading some of the reviews, I noticed that some people were surprised when they rented an Airbnb in Cuba because the water was not reliable, toilet paper was scarce, the internet was advertised but not available in the house, and the owners lived in the house with the guests.
Our Airbnb in Havana had plenty of toilet paper and a water tank on the roof to supply us with water when it was out in the city. When we arrived, we thought we were renting the whole apartment, so Ron opened the refrigerator and was surprised when the owners said that we couldn’t use the kitchen, but they could cook for us.
They had a small room behind the kitchen where they slept, but we could use the living room and the dining room along with the two bedrooms and the balcony. When I asked about the internet, they offered to sell me a card and told me that I could walk to the malacon to get a signal.
I discovered later that there was no internet signal on the malacon, but I could walk to the Hotel Presidente to get a signal and a comfortable place to sit and log into the internet. They sold me a card for 3 CUCs for one hour of internet, but the Hotel Presidente only charged 2 CUCs for a card and an hour of internet.
We wondered how the people who owned Airbnbs in Cuba checked their reservations without internet access. When we arrived, Sissy, the granddaughter, greeted us. She worked in a large department where she had free internet access and she took care of all the transactions for her grandparents.
How did Airbnb launch their company in Cuba without easy internet access and a predominantly cash society? Many of the Airbnb owners don’t even have a bank account. How was the money transferred to the owners?
The answers to those questions started long before Airbnb launched in Cuba. In 1997, Cuba began regulating the industry of bed and breakfasts that started popping up all over Cuba. Called casa particulares, the bed and breakfasts operated mainly by word of mouth. The government provided decals for casa particulares so travelers could find them when they arrived in Cuba. They also made recruiting customers a licensed profession.
Meanwhile, lists of casa particulares found their way online. We used HomeStay.com to find our casa particulars around Cuba. These are little versions of Airbnb.
In December 2014, when President Obama lifted some of the travel restrictions to Cuba, it became legal for Airbnb to have Cuban hosts on its site. But, there were many hurdles to overcome. Having a bank account was uncommon, Cubans preferred cash. Until 2008, it was illegal for Cubans to buy computers and only 22% of Cubans had access to the government controlled internet.
Yet, the Cubans are creative and resourceful. Airbnb simply tapped into an existing network of middlemen. The company partnered with a few “internet managers” who already took care of the marketing for the casa particulares and charged the hosts a small fee for management services. Now, they handle Airbnb listings, too.
For hosts who have bank accounts, Airbnb works with intermediaries to deposit funds into their accounts. For the many hosts who do not have bank accounts, Airbnb partnered with third parties who will deliver cash to their doorsteps.
However, one thing we learned about these third parties is that some of them are not accountable for paying the hosts the correct amount from Airbnb. For example, when we stayed at a casa particulares in Viñales, our host was very upset. She listed her home on Homestay.com and on Airbnb. She always receives the correct money from the Homestay.com company, but the third-party that partnered with Airbnb came to her house while we were there and paid her 50 CUCs for her Airbnb guests. She said she was owed four times that amount. When she complained, they shrugged their shoulders and said all they had was 50 CUCs. Her husband was ready to kill them!
I hope the middleman-reliant, cash driven system is only temporary and that policy changes continue to help the Cuban hosts become more self-reliant. I noticed that MasterCard and American Express could be used in the Hotel Presidente in Havana. There is one free wi-fi hotspot in Havana, with many more to come.
In the meantime, the system works for Airbnb, however I hope they can cut out the middlemen soon. We enjoyed our experiences in the Airbnbs in Cuba. Because we could book and pay the full amount online, we didn’t need to take quite as much money to Cuba. Our hosts were wonderful and we shared many stories of our lives.
Have you stayed in Airbnbs? What were your experiences?