Since Airbnb launched in Cuba, the number of accommodation listings in the country has more than tripled. According to a source at Airbnb, it took some of the home-sharing company's biggest markets – including San Francisco and Berlin – three years for the community to grow to 1000 listings. In Cuba it took just two months.
About 40 per cent of Airbnb listings in Cuba are for Havana properties, with the rest spread over 30 locations including the UNESCO World Heritage-listed town of Trinidad and the beach haven of Varadero.
The existing network of "casas particulares" or private home rentals made Airbnb a natural fit for Cuba. Locals have a reputation as warm and welcoming hosts, and visitors to the Caribbean island nation often report that the best Cuban food is served straight out of home kitchens.
Airbnb is one of the first American accommodation providers to stake a claim in a country that is widely considered to have vast potential to grow as a tourist destination. US President Barrack Obama's announcement at the beginning of 2015 that relations were set to thaw between the nations set off a flurry of interest in travelling to Cuba – both by Americans, who are now finding it easier to travel direct from the US, and travellers from the rest of the world, who want to see the classic cars and faded glamour of old Havana "before the Americans arrive".
In a country where the average worker earns the equivalent of $25 a month, a nightly room rate of $50 is a bonanza. Two Cubans embracing the Airbnb expansion are Ruslan Martinez and his wife Fatima. The son of a Cuban man and a Ukrainian woman, Martinez is in possession of two essential assets of a would-be Airbnb entrepreneur: ambition and internet access.
Few Cubans have internet at home, but Martinez's mother, as a foreigner, more easily navigated the government red-tape to get connected. The family had been keeping an online eye on tourism developments and were among the first to sign up as Airbnb hosts when the company launched in their town of Trinidad, about a six-hour drive from Havana.
Martinez, an engineering graduate, says he sees more potential in tourism than his chosen field of study. He and Fatima already manage more than 150 rental homes for local families who may lack the English-language skills or internet connection to do it themselves. The dynamic duo visited local families, photographed their homes, listed them on Airbnb and now communicate with potential guests via email. They also co-ordinate everything from arrival services to cleaning and in-home dining.
When I stayed at one of the historic houses in Trinidad managed by Ruslan and Fatima, it was a two-storey colonial-era row house with three double bedrooms and a rooftop patio with expansive views of the city. The rooms were clean, secure and mercifully airconditioned to combat the searing summer heat.
Each morning, Ruslan or his father Raul stopped by to see if we needed anything. They showed us their favourite Cuban restaurants, recommended the best place to hear live music and answered our questions about navigating the town, and indeed, the rest of Cuba.
In between, we learnt about their lives, and they about ours, in the sort of impromptu cultural exchange that most easily flows around a kitchen table.
JetBlue has non-stop weekly flights between New York City (JFK) and Havana. US airlines are not yet allowed to sell tickets for flights to Cuba, though they are allowed to operate the aircraft that fly there. JetBlue has partnered with charter flight companies to sell round-trip flights between destinations in Florida (and now New York) and Cuba. See cubatravelservices.com or cubatravelnetwork.com.
Many other international airlines (including Iberia and Virgin Atlantic) offer direct flights to Cuba from destinations in Europe, Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas.
From Havana, the town of Trinidad can be reached via a six-hour bus ride ($35 a ticket); a private car and driver can be arranged for about $255.
There are no restrictions on Australians visiting Cuba, but they must obtain a visa. They're available for $US15 at most airports during check-in for Cuba.
Hundreds of private rooms and entire apartments all over Cuba are offered for rent on home-sharing site Airbnb. The average price in Havana is $68 a night; in Trinidad, Cuba, it's $47 a night. See airbnb.com.
Take plenty of cash, preferably Euros, certainly not US dollars; there is a 3 per cent fee to exchange all foreign money but US dollars are hit with an additional 10 per cent tax. Most businesses do not accept credit cards and it can be difficult to withdraw cash from ATMs. Travellers must change foreign currency to CUCs (the Cuban Convertible Peso).
Kristie Kellahan travelled at her own expense in Cuba.
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