The History of Airbnbs in Cuba

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.

Overlooking Havana from our Airbnb balcony on the malacon.

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.

We rented two rooms in an apartment owned by retired Cubans. They slept in the room behind the kitchen.

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.

A view of the malacon from our balcony in Havana.

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.

From our balcony we could watch the cruise ships arrive.

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.

Our Airbnb in Trinidad. We rented the upstairs and downstairs bedrooms.

Meanwhile, lists of casa particulares found their way online. We used 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.

A beautiful mural in the garden of our Airbnb in Trinidad, Cuba.

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.

The Airbnbs all cook delicious food. This Airbnb in Trinidad had a dining room where we ate fresh lobster.

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 and on Airbnb. She always receives the correct money from the 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!

Our view from the rooftop terrace in Trinidad.

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? 

21 thoughts on “The History of Airbnbs in Cuba

  1. Very interesting Debbie! We’ve stayed in many AirBnB’s around the world but I never gave much thought as to how the set-up might be different from country to country based on customs and laws. Your Cuban posts have definitely reignited my interest in this amazing country and, when we’re next in the area of the world, we will definitely be figuring out a way to include it on our itinerary! Anita

    • Anita, I am glad I reignited your interest in Cuba. When we paid for our Airbnb stays before we left Nicaragua, I was curious as to how Airbnbs work in Cuba and how the payments are made.
      Then, yesterday, I read an article about the same middlemen, VaCuba, who partnered with Airbnb and deliver the payments to the Cuban hosts. VaCuba shorted our Viñales host by a large amount, and I am glad they are in the process of being investigated. In most cases, middlemen are nothing more than scammers.

  2. This is a great detailed report. Some info that we were not aware of. Especially the history and the middleman.
    With our Cuba experience we stayed at 4 Casa Particulars. Two booked with Airbnb, one direct with the owner, and the other through Vinales B & B,
    We had no problems with any of our bookings and were able to email direct with the owners to get questions answered and confirmation for our arrival and arranging transportation to their locations.
    Two we paid in Cuc’s upon our departure and the other two were prepaid with credit cards when we booked with Airbnb. We agree it is very convenient to use Airbnb but at the time we found other sites listed a lot more Casa Particulars then Airbnb was at that time. ( December 2016)
    We loved Cuba…so much so that we are planning a return visit in 2018. It is such a sensory overload! There is so much to see.
    Your Casa Particular in Trinidad looks great. If you can recommend it Deb, please email us the info. I believe you have our email address.
    We do agree that once there the internet is just about non existent.

    John and Susan

  3. Although we used to stay in B&Bs in the US., our experience in Mexico is very limited. Read
    Not strictly speaking, we prefer less personal hotels to B&Bs. An exception might be our wedding anniversary trips. The upcoming trip includes a stay at Casa Navacoyan, in Malinalco, Estado de México.

    The following post may be relevant:
    But skimpy, cliched breakfasts at b&bs are not the only reason we tend to prefer regular hotels.
    (I thought I’d posted a blog on the subject, but haven’t located it at the moment.

    Don Cuevas

  4. I have been lurking on your blog for several years and really enjoy your posts. My wife and I first visited Cuba in 2003 and then in 2005
    Both times we rented a car and stayed in casas particulates. It remains our favourite country in the world. We also write stories about our travel experiences, but post them on our personal website, rather than a blog. I thought you might enjoy reading about our Cuban experiences, which are remarkably similar to ours.

    • Thanks so much Bob. Cuba has certainly changed since you have visited. Although it is one of the safest countries we have visited, it isn’t one of our favorites. I am glad we visited because who knows what will happen in the future with U.S. relationships. We met many U.S. Citizens who were visiting Cuba, like us, hoping to see Cuba before the political climate changed again.

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