Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Airbnb Finds Interest In Cuba But Hurdles Must Be Overcome First


On this week, when improving U.S. relations with Cuba are on display - the presidents of both nations are attending a summit - we have news of tourism in Cuba. It involves Airbnb, a popular service where you can rent rooms or homes online for a few days or weeks. This service launched last week in Cuba, extending to the island. And many Americans got their first glimpse into that country's real estate market. This story also gives us a glimpse into business opportunities in Cuba, business opportunities that come with some challenges. Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Michael Zuccato manages Cuba Travel Services, which, for 25 years, has chartered flights to the island, where I reached him on his cell phone.

MICHAEL ZUCCATO: I am outside of the Melia Cohiba hotel. I'm looking down at the Malecon right now. It's a beautiful, sunny day here in Havana, for sure.

NOGUCHI: Zuccato says hotels during spring months are already tight. He expects it to get more so, thanks in part because of buzz generated by Airbnb.

ZUCCATO: There's a lot of interest, a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails.

NOGUCHI: Airbnb is not alone in its ambitious plans to expand. Telecommunications firms and companies including Netflix, American Express and MasterCard are making early forays into Cuba. But while there may be money to be made in the long term, those companies face headwinds in the short term. Molly Turner is Airbnb's head of civic partnerships and acknowledges the challenge.

MOLLY TURNER: I wouldn't say we were motivated to work in Cuba because of the revenue potential. It's a very resource-intensive market for us because of all of the obvious constraints.

NOGUCHI: Internet connectivity in Cuba is sparse, and credit cards are just now entering the market. Airbnb requires American travelers to certify they have a U.S. government-issued license to travel there. And in order to pay hosts in cash, Airbnb contracts with a remittance company. But Turner says Cuba was a perfect cultural fit with Airbnb. Two decades ago, the government started allowing residents to rent rooms in their homes to tourists.

TURNER: We have stumbled upon a community there that has been doing this long before Airbnb ever existed.

NOGUCHI: Take Tatiana Zuniga, whose central Havana house is among the 1,000-plus Cuban properties listed on Airbnb - all vetted and approved. It's an old colonial with majestic pillars, high ceilings and vivid pastel colors.

TATIANA ZUNIGA: (Through interpreter) We are very fortunate. Our house is on the first floor. And when you stand in the living room and look through the balcony, you enjoy the best scenery - the ocean.

NOGUCHI: In January, Zuniga and her mother started renting rooms for $33 a night, learning tips about web promotion for more experienced hosts. She says it made sense as a family business.

ZUNIGA: (Through interpreter) The house was transferred from generation to generation. My grandparents owned it, and they transferred it to us in their will.

NOGUCHI: Since the Obama administration announced its intention to normalize relations, U.S. and Cuban businesses have been moving quickly to take advantage - perhaps a little too quickly given the current restrictions. Stefan Selig is undersecretary of international trade at the Commerce Department. He notes the White House is close to removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, which will go far in liberalizing business relations between the countries. But, he cautions, opening the markets will be a slow process.

STEFAN SELIG: There is a limit on the near-term commercial opportunity, I think, for United States companies, in addition to the fact, of course, that we are still operating under embargo.

NOGUCHI: Meanwhile, a week after launching its Cuba presence, Airbnb says the number of people searching for Cuban properties has increased twenty-sevenfold. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.