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Why Airbnb Thinks Cuba Can Become A Case Study

Why Airbnb Thinks Cuba Can Become A Case Study

Posted by PanamericanWorld on September 11, 2015

Like most Cubans, Alejandro Portieles spent much of his life in government jobs. He started as a veterinarian, crisscrossing the island’s ruddy roads to tend to cows, horses and other animals at government farms. He later became an administrator for the government’s food services overseeing restaurants and cafeterias in various localities. He rose through the ranks and a few years ago, he was asked to take over the running of food service operations in Old Havana, the historic center of the capital and a magnet for tourists. Portieles, then 62, didn’t want the pressure and scrutiny that would be part of the high-profile job. So he retired, and as a growing number of Cubans have done recently, he became an entrepreneur.

Portieles now runs a beautiful bed and breakfast in the heart of Havana. It’s a 200-year-old house that belonged to a Spanish captain during the colonial era, then to a Jewish family and eventually became a prominent dry cleaning establishment. After the revolution, the government expropriated it and turned into a multi-family tenement. It now belongs to Portieles’ son, a United Nations official working in Nicaragua. Portieles and his wife Nelly Figueredo, painstakingly restored the building – brick by brick, tile by tile, even saving portions of an original fresco with the help of the government’s historic preservation experts. They opened in 2014, offering two spotless, air-conditioned rooms with 25-foot ceilings that face an open air corridor and patio. In the morning, the couple serves a delicious breakfast for their guests. With the income they earned, they refurbished a third room, and are now working on a fourth, upstairs. They’re listed on TripAdvisor TRIP +0.00%, on a number of European Web sites and Cuban agencies and, courtesy of their son in Nicaragua, have their own Web site. They have had guests from 54 countries, from Spain to Angola, Israel to Venezuela and Switzerland to Korea. “That would be South Korea, naturally,” Portieles clarifies with a smile and knowing look over his wire-rimmed glasses. In June, I was their first Airbnb guest.

Airbnb landed in Cuba with a splash on April 1. The country had been something of the original rent-a-room market and was in many ways tailor-made for Airbnb. Room rentals started more than two decades ago, when the Castro regime opened the door to private enterprise in a very limited number of categories, including private rentals and restaurants. As the government expanded those categories to more than 200, casas particulares, as the rentals are known, grew into one of the largest and most successful sectors. There are now more than 20,000 of them in Cuba, and new ones are sprouting daily. They rent to some of the more than 2 million visitors who come to the island annually from Europe, Latin America, Canada and other destinations. Travelers typically find homes on TripAdvisor or other Web sites; others reserve through a handful of local or European agencies; others are led to rentals by hucksters who buttonhole tourists on the streets, outside Havana’s hotels.

The promise of Airbnb is to bring order, trust, growth – and of course, Americans – to this market. But its impact on the island’s rent-a-room market is hard to predict. For one, as relations with the United States head toward normalization, an influx of tourists is expected to come to Cuba of the likes the island has never seen. Only 100,000 or so American visitors came to the island in 2014, but that number is on track to grown more than 30% this year, based on early estimates. A full normalization of relations between the countries would send that number far higher, and could double or more the total number of visitors to the island. Cuba’s tourism infrastructure is ill prepared for a surge – existing hotels are already largely booked during the high season, so the casas particulares could help absorb the surge.

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