Online lodging service Airbnb is allowing travelers from around the world to book stays in private homes in Cuba after the San Francisco-based company received special authorization from the Obama administration, Airbnb announced Sunday. Airbnb was the first major American company to enter Cuba after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on Dec. 17, 2014, and Cuba has become its fastest-growing market, with about 4,000 homes added in the last year. Airbnb had only been allowed to let US travelers use its services in Cuba under a relatively limited Obama administration exception to the half-century old US trade embargo on the island, reports the AP. The expansion of that license gives Airbnb the ability to become a one-stop shop for travelers seeking lodging in private homes, an attractive alternative to state-run hotels.
Airbnb's new authorization was announced on the morning of an historic three-day trip by Obama to Cuba and a day after Starwood Hotels announced that it had signed a deal to run three Cuban hotels, becoming the first US hotel company in Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Airbnb said world travelers could begin booking in Cuba in April 2, the anniversary of the country's start of operations on the island. All hotels in Cuba are owned by government agencies and many are known for poor service and decrepit infrastructure. Foreign hotel chains operate some of the island's larger and more luxurious hotels, which are at full capacity thanks to a post-detente boom that saw tourism surge nearly 20% last year. Many websites allow foreigners to book Cuban private homes, known as "casas particulares," but none has emerged as a dominant player, and electronic or credit card payments are still spotty. Airbnb is promoting its service as a solution to those problems.