Airbnb opens rental listings for U.S. travelers to Cuba

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Online home-rental marketplace Airbnb Inc now offers properties in Cuba, the company said on Thursday, as it looks to capitalize on an expected travel boom resulting from the normalizing of relations between the United States and the Communist-run nation.

Tourists ride a convertible car on Havana's seafront boulevard El Malecon at sunset March 13, 2012. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

President Barack Obama has loosened some Cold War-era travel restrictions, allowing Americans to visit the Caribbean island for a range of reasons, such as family visits or education.

U.S. lawmakers have proposed further easing to permit purely tourist travel. But pure beach and resort tourism remains illegal for Americans in Cuba under a five-decades-old trade embargo.

Airbnb said on Thursday that after Obama announced the changes, it saw a 70 percent spike in U.S. searches for rentals in Cuba. In response, it has added more than 1,000 listings on the island.

Americans booking stays in Cuba on the site will have to assert that they have a license from the U.S. government to travel there.

Airbnb’s Cuba services are only open to U.S. travelers, but could expand to include people from other countries, the company said.

“They made us this proposal a few days ago and we’re delighted to accept what they offered us,” said Reinier Torres, who manages a Havana home on Airbnb’s service. “It’s a great opportunity for us to attract American tourism ... though we haven’t seen any practical results yet.”

The National Foreign Trade Council, a lobbying group that pushes for open international trade, said Airbnb’s expansion would help meet “soaring demand” for lodging in Cuba.

U.S. travel companies licensed to offer educational and cultural tours to Cuba are reporting a surge in interest from Americans, with bookings for this year up steeply.

Airline charter companies flying to Cuba from two Florida cities, Miami and Tampa, are also reporting increased business. In the first three months of 2015, they reported about 175,000 passengers.

Travel experts say Cuba’s state-run hotel sector lacks the capacity to handle a major increase in U.S. visitors, without the variety of high-end hotels found in other destinations.

The private bed and breakfast option is increasingly poised to pick up the slack in the state sector and could spur investment in new hotel construction said Emilio Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group in Miami.

There are between 6,000 to 8,000 rooms for rent in private homes in Havana, priced at about $30-35 a night, compared with $150-$200 in standard hotels.

A lack of internet and banking services in Cuba still greatly limits online private sector transactions. But Cubans are already familiar with similar services in Canada and Europe that offer pre-paid home stays in Cuba, using money transfer and cash delivery systems to pay home owners, Morales said.

Other U.S. businesses have begun offering services in Cuba. Kayak, owned by online travel agency Priceline Group Inc, has added Cuba to its website. And several airlines have said they are looking into adding flights.

Additional reporting Krista Hughes in Washington, David Adams in Miami and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Susan Heavey, Lisa Von Ahn and Alan Crosby