Airbnb’s rapid growth in Cuba comes with a few problems
Lack of Internet service means sometimes your reservation isn’t certain
Government also takes its cut, and hosts must report passport numbers to
Still, the experience can be interesting and rewarding
BY FRANCO ORDOÑEZ
The first foreign travelers who stayed with Raissa Acevedo and her
mother were Europeans. They came to Cuba for work – and sometimes a
little love. But since she signed up on Airbnb, Acevedo has hosted more
Americans curious about Cuban life.
“What travelers want to experience is not some resort, because you can
go to a resort anywhere: Punta Cana, Cancun,” Acevedo said while fixing
coffee. “What they want is this . . . the reality for Cubans. They don’t
have any idea how Cubans live.”
I wasn’t supposed to stay with Acevedo. But I found myself at her small
two-bedroom apartment in Havana’s suburbs after learning the room I’d
reserved had been double-booked, a systematic glitch that many Cuban
Airbnb hosts face because of the lack of Internet service on the island.
Since embarking on cozier relations with Cuba leader Raúl Castro 15
months ago, the Obama administration has been eliminating stiff
regulations on travel and commerce, which has expanded opportunities for
Americans to visit the island.
10% The Cuban government’s cut of Airbnb earnings
During President Barack Obama’s 48-hour visit last month, he touted the
popularity of Airbnb as an example of the diplomatic benefits that come
from everyday Americans spending time with everyday Cubans. He likes to
say nobody represents America’s values better than the American people.
“That’s why we’re encouraging travel, which will build bridges between
our people,” Obama said during his address to the Cuban people from the
Gran Teatro in Havana on March 22.
Renting a room with a family also tends to be cheaper than staying in a
government-run hotel, and some Americans like the idea that their money
isn’t going directly to the Castro regime.
There is no question the families benefit – they wouldn’t be quitting
their day jobs otherwise. But those who think they’re kick-starting a
new Cuban economy beyond the reach of the government may be disappointed
to learn that the government gets its cut in fees and taxes. Hosts are
also required to report any foreign guests’ passport numbers to their
local immigration office.
The Cuban government collects 10 percent of what hosts take in.
Depending on the type of rental and neighborhood, officials also charge
Airbnb hosts a monthly fee. For Acevedo, it’s about $70 a month.
For Yisel Clavero Pérez, who runs Casa Amada Malecon out of her family’s
1926 colonial home in Habana Vieja, it’s $200 a month, $40 for each of
her five rooms. That’s whether the rooms are occupied or not.
Clavero doesn’t have a problem with the extra fees, she said, but the
amount is not insignificant considering the average monthly salary in
Cuba is around $20.
AIRBNB HOSTS ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT FOREIGN GUESTS’ PASSPORT NUMBERS TO
THE LOCAL IMMIGRATION OFFICE
“We work hard to make sure our rooms are booked,” Clavero said.
The décor of the room I booked for $40 a night was bright. Despite the
dazzling red sheets, the bed looked comfortable. The bathroom looked
clean. The two reviews mentioned warm showers and elaborate breakfasts
of fresh fruit. In her Airbnb profile, the woman who posted it, Martica,
described a stay with her husband, her parents and her as being with
“your family in Cuba.”
When I arrived, Martica wasn’t home. Her father looked confused when I
mentioned I had a reservation. He called his wife, Martica’s mother, who
apologized. The room was occupied, she said.
After a few minutes on the phone, Martica’s father grabbed my bag and
motioned for me to follow him down the street to a neighbor’s house.
Mentally, I braced for cold showers while watching him fumble with the
Martica came by later. She apologized. She explained that it took her a
day to get online. By the time she saw my reservation, she’d already
taken a reservation for the room by phone. She didn’t want to panic me
by canceling my reservation, she said.
THAT’S WHY WE’RE ENCOURAGING TRAVEL, WHICH WILL BUILD BRIDGES BETWEEN
President Barack Obama
It’s impossible to check the Internet as much as you’d like in Cuba.
Most hosts must leave their houses to find hotels or public Wi-Fi hot
spots to access the Web. At $2 an hour for Web access, it’s also expensive.
It worked out. Acevedo’s house was clean and had hot water.
Acevedo, 52, lives alone. Her mother is gone and her father lives down
the street with his current wife. Her own children are grown and living
in Miami and Tallahassee.
She gave tips on getting around, including how to pick up an almendron –
one of those classic American cars that double as collective taxis that
Cubans ride together for less than a $1 a trip.
Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, estimates that 10 to 20 percent of
Americans who travel to Cuba are staying with hosts on Airbnb. More than
4,000 Cuban have signed up as hosts with the service.
It makes sense. More than 3.5 million people visited Cuba last year, yet
the island has only 63,000 hotel rooms.
“One of our hosts said that they have a lot of misconceptions about
Americans, but when they live with you for a year you start to think
very, very differently about Americans,” Chesky said in Cuba during a
talk about entrepreneurship there.
Clavero, who was part of the first group that joined Airbnb, sees new
relations with the United States and the expansion of Airbnb as
important steps for Cubans.
For about $40 a night, travelers can rent out her old bedroom that
overlooks an internal courtyard. For $250, they can rent the whole
house. They can smoke cigars on the rooftop patio overlooking Old Havana.
“If we have the opportunity to grow economically, it’s going to be much
better,” Clavero said. “We Cubans, even with problems, we’re happy. Can
you imagine what it’d be like without them?”
On my last day in Cuba, Acevedo pulled an old box out of her closet. She
had a copy of an old 1869 constitution that helped kick off Cuban
independence. She had news articles about a “young rebel.” The photo
spread included glamorous shots of a young teenager, Acevedo’s mother,
who had been named queen of the 1962 Havana carnival following the
revolution. In one picture, Acevdeo’s mom is dressed in a fancy ball
gown watching the parade. Sitting next to her, in uniform, is Cuban icon
“Commandante Fidel Castro.”
“Look here. Look here,” Acevedo said giggling, as she discovered the old
photo. “There she is next to Fidel.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @francoordonez.
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