Airbnb lets travelers book stays in a shipping container in the Netherlands, a treehouse in Spain and a castle in Croatia.
And as of Thursday, the San Francisco-based company will add private homes in Cuba known as casas particulares to its million-plus listings in more than 190 countries.
“Generally the vision of Airbnb is to create a world where you can belong anywhere,” said Kay Kuehne, regional director for Airbnb in Latin America. “Cuba was one blank spot for us on the world map.”
The nearly seven-year-old company has been working on Thursday’s launch since December, when President Barack Obama announced plans to ease travel restrictions to the island. After that edict, searches from U.S. users for listings in Cuba jumped 70 percent. Efforts picked up steam in January, when the U.S. government announced specific new regulations.
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While trips for the sake of tourism are still prohibited, the U.S. Treasury Department no longer requires citizens who fall under 12 categories of authorized travel — including educational activities, athletic competitions or people-to-people programs — to apply for a specific license to go to Cuba.
As demand from U.S. travelers has increased following those announcements, experts have warned that Cuba’s hotels — which are either wholly or majority owned by the government — are not equipped to accommodate the influx.
“The hotel issue is certainly here; Cuba really hasn’t built new hotels,” said Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel in Washington, D.C. “There’s already a shift – people are starting to invest in turning their homes into rental properties because they see the government not moving fast enough.”
Private home stays have long been a legal alternative in Cuba, but many have not been easily searchable or bookable for Americans.
“We want to plug the existing infrastructure of casas particulares into the Internet so that they’re bookable or more visible for U.S. travelers and so that we can provide them with additional demand,” Kuehne said. As of Thursday, more than 1,000 of the private homes were listed on the site, with about 40 percent in Havana and the rest in areas such as Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara.
The main challenges to including the accommodations on Airbnb were connecting hosts to the Internet and getting payments to the hosts, he said.
To address the connectivity issue, Kuehne said the company has been working with Internet-using partners who have managed and helped promote hosts in the past.
For the launch, Airbnb has tapped into Cuba’s existing system of bank payouts. For the future, the company is working with a provider to facilitate cash payments to casa owners. When booking, travelers will simply enter a credit card number. Only licensed U.S. travelers are allowed to use the site for now.
The current typical price for a night in a Havana casa particular is $30. Kuehne says owners will continue to set pricing based on demand, but he does not anticipate a dramatic change as a result of Airbnb’s entry into the market.
Customers will not notice much of a difference between booking a room in Havana or anywhere else included on the website, Kuehne said. The only difference is that guests must choose which licensed form of travel they fall under from a dropdown menu. By making the choice, they are testifying that they meet the U.S. government requirements.
Airbnb, which collects a transaction fee for each booking, offers a $1 million host guarantee in case of property damage and a promise to guests that if they book through the site, they will have a place to stay if anything goes wrong.
Laverty said those safeguards should help ease some concerns for travelers who don’t want to leave parts of their trip to chance.
“They’ll start to capture more middle-class travelers that aren’t necessarily just looking for the adventure experience, but they’re looking for a comfortable place to stay,” he said.
The move represents a major opportunity for Cuban entrepreneurs, said Dan Restrepo, a consultant who worked with Airbnb.
“It creates a bigger marketplace for individual Cubans,” said Restrepo, who has served as an advisor to Obama on Latin American and Caribbean issues.
For most companies considering doing business in Cuba, Restrepo said one major consideration is that the Cuban government would be a partner.
“Here, the business partner is not the Cuban government; here, the business partner is individual Cubans,” he said.
Other travel companies have dipped a toe in Cuban waters. Kayak.com lists flights and hotel information for Cuba, though it does not provide booking links. And booking site CheapAir.com includes flights to Cuba on its search engine, packaging flights from the U.S. through Mexico.
Major travel sites such as Expedia and Orbitz have expressed interest in future moves.
The Airbnb announcement is “the tip of the iceberg,” predicted Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research in San Francisco.
“I think what’s interesting is we’re seeing this movement coming from a company that didn’t exist a few years ago,” he said. “These first moves are coming from these nimble, agile companies — it’s not coming from the hotel companies or the airlines. It shows how a nimble startup can find a way to open up travel into Cuba. It’s very exciting.”