On the face of it, Cuba is everything you imagine it to be. Cuba libres drunk on verandas in the tropical heat, Fidel Castro’s tobacco plantations for his Cohiba cigars, taxi-rides in buffed vintage cars, horse rides in the rainforest, palm-fringed beaches and salsa rhythms. But as vibrant and appealing a destination it is, there’s always been a catch. Where to stay?
Pretty much all the hotels and hotel chains, like most businesses, are state-owned. You’ll find no Aman or Mr. & Mrs. Smith here.
The all-inclusives aren’t really about Cuba either. You can book a package before you go, but it’s a comparatively expensive option compared to the rates you find once you’re there and much of that profit doesn’t reach your host (who will grumble about it). You could take your chances and try to find cheap rooms as you travel around, but a much better option would be, well, to Airbnb it.
Until six months ago you couldn’t. But in April 2016, Airbnb began allowing British travellers to rent Cuban homes and discover the “real” Cuba through the eyes of the locals. It’s just one of the myriad ways in which the country has begun to rapidly transform and open up in the last two years.
Airbnb is the global platform that millions of travellers use to book holiday rentals directly with homeowners, offering 2.5 million homes in more than 190 countries and 34,000 cities. In 2015, the US Government granted a licence for Airbnb to operate in Cuba, initially marketing rooms only to the US. To mark Obama’s visit this spring, they opened the service up to the rest of the world.
There’s irony in the timing. As local governments in US and European cities seek to enforce stricter controls over Airbnb’s activities, it’s in this socialist paradise that the rental platform has found its firmest footing yet.
Airbnb landed on fertile soil. In its first year of restricted selling, Cuba became Airbnb’s fastest-growing country ever, multiplying an initial 1,000 listings to 6,000. Currently, there are 8,000 homes listed, costing from £8 for a room in a shared homestay to £615 for exclusive use for up to 15 guests.
This unparalleled success came about because Cubans have already been able to trade as licensed casas particulares (B&B entrepreneurs, essentially) for the past two decades. With no internet, and so no Google Maps, these hosts instead relied on an older style of marketing, declaring themselves to tourists and visitors by posting an upturned blue anchor symbol above their doors.
Although some of these lodgings are listed in guidebooks, it wasn’t until Airbnb arrived in the country that these B&B owners had a way to advertise and rent their properties to the rest of the world. Homeowners have found an online middleman to join the dots.
As well as staying with Airbnb in Havana, I visited a dozen of these homestays and was hugely impressed with the enthusiasm of the hosts. It was exciting to see women, especially, making a go of business, finding a well-remunerated role to help support their families.
The apartments vary hugely in terms of modern conveniences and amenities, as you could probably have guessed. Many are very basic, and for £30-40 a night for a double room with an en-suite, including breakfast, you obviously can’t expect The Ritz. Rattling A/C units, stark lighting, covered windows and the odd touch of damp make this more of a backpacker’s holiday than a luxury getaway. But few will be travelling to Cuba looking for mints on pillows and a turndown service.
With the recent thawing of relations between the island and its nearest neighbour, Cuba’s fortunes are yet again on the cusp of change. Airbnb, and its thousands of local hosts, are first in line to invite you to experience it.