FOCUS: Airbnb’s Rapid Growth in Cuba Comes With a Few Problems

HAVANA (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

The first foreign travelers who stayed with Raissa Acevedo and her mother were Europeans. They came to Cuba for work. 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 Raul 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.

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.

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 Perez, 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.

“We work hard to make sure our rooms are booked,” Clavero said.

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?”