Lorelis García de la Torre hails from the Cuban city of Camagüey but has always loved the stately old colonial homes of Havana, many crumbling and long past their glory days. She left Cuba in 2006, first for Spain and then Canada. Shortly after, the country’s tourism industry heated up, with aspiring entrepreneurs buying up properties to turn into casas particulares, private homes available for rent. In 2014, she made an offer on a two-story house in the neighborhood of Vedado.
Three years later, she opened the newly renovated house for business, naming it Casa Brava. But instead of renting it out through word-of-mouth or booking agencies, as Cubans had done for years, she first listed it on Airbnb. “It was the only way I knew of where Cubans had access and could receive payments,” she said.
But Airbnb didn’t just offer Cubans like García de la Torre a means of renting their properties to tourists in a simple and centralized way. According to interviews with hosts, guides, service workers, and hotel industry professionals, Airbnb fundamentally changed the way that tourism operates on the island, replacing the country’s decades-old casa particular system and transforming entire neighborhoods to serve the needs of new clients with different expectations. Airbnb declined to be interviewed for this article.
The uniquely Cuban system of casas particulares grew out of the country’s so-called Special Period, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The government began to open up the housing market, allowing for the sale of private homes for tourist accommodation. Ricardo Torres Pérez, an economist and research fellow at American University, in Washington D.C., said that, as a result, “the number of visitors grew exponentially.”
The casas particulares offered something that other accommodations couldn’t. “Before it was a business, it was somebody’s home,” said Alison Coelho, who has been leading tourism experiences in Cuba since 2000.
The model felt, and looked, not so different from the one Airbnb pitched when it was founded in 2008. “Hotels leave you disconnected from the city and its culture,” the company’s original pitch deck read. “Book rooms with locals.”
“Airbnb is definitely a continuation of the casa particular model,” said Tom Popper, an expert on Cuban tourism from 82° West Consultants, a firm focused on business entry to Cuba.
Airbnb entered the Cuban market in 2015 to much fanfare, as President Obama eased travel restrictions. In its first year of operations, the platform brought 4,000 of Cuba’s estimated 20,000 casas particulares onto its platform. Current data provided to Rest of World from the short-term rental data provider AirDNA shows that by May 2017, the total number of Airbnb listings had topped 20,000, essentially subsuming the casa particular market. Listings peaked at almost 35,000, the summer before Covid-19.
According to tourism experts, Airbnb made the casa particular model easier for both guests and owners, providing a place to not only list properties but make payments, rather than rely on word-of-mouth and cash. Furthermore, people like García de la Torre were buying properties to list them on Airbnb — people from not only Cuba but other countries like Italy and Spain as well.
Airbnb’s entry into Cuba coincided with an increase in tourism to the island overall, with the number of travelers growing by over 50% between 2014 and 2018. Tourism from the United States nearly quadrupled between 2015 and 2018.
Yusleidys Pérez Ugarte, a travel agent who worked with the government until the pandemic hit, said that the expansion of private home rentals under Airbnb quickly took precedence over the hotel industry. “It’s not a secret to anyone that the hotels in Cuba are expensive and don’t have the best service,” she said. “During Obama’s term, when relations improved and Americans began to come, the private houses expanded because hotels could not keep up.”
According to residents, neighborhoods in Havana began to transform under the new influx of development and tourists. Adriana Ricardo Díaz is the director of Arte Corte, a nonprofit community project in Old Havana that trains hairdressers. “During the years before the pandemic, the private sector took off, especially in the rental housing market,” she said. “Improvement didn’t look like the gentrification that you usually see in other countries, with its devastating impact. … People sold their houses that were in bad conditions, and there was a recuperation of wealth.”
Cubans began to take advantage of Airbnb’s experiences feature as well. Ricardo Díaz offered experiences centered around cocktail making and would show tourists around Arte Corte.
Manuel Fortún Manzano, a 29-year-old from Havana, was working in human resources for a government-run construction company when his friend told him about Airbnb in 2018. He began offering an experience called “The Havana Whisperer,” where he would teach tourists about everything from how to change money to what neighborhoods to visit (accompanied by cocktails and food, of course). It quickly became his main source of income. “More than anything, it provided me with economic autonomy,” he told Rest of World.
David Ferrán had been working as a tour guide in Havana when Airbnb came to the country. Before, people struggled to promote their tours and find clients. “What Airbnb did was allow a lot of people working as tour guides for the state to start working independently,” he told Rest of World. Ferrán began to create different experiences for the platform, going so far as to open a family-run spa business, which he now operates outside of Airbnb.
Havana is still the main hub for tourists in Cuba, but parts of the country that had never seen tourism changed as well. According to several hosts and Pérez, the American University economist who spoke with Rest of World, Airbnb was able to open different regions to private home rentals in a way that casas particulares never could.
Nadal Antelmo Vizcaíno is originally from Santa Marta, a small town bordering the popular tourist destination of Varadero Beach, about two hours east of Havana. He moved to Miami in 2016 but decided to list his house on Airbnb in 2017, after he saw its burgeoning footprint on the island.
At first, his town was slow to adapt to the platform. “There weren’t more than five or 10 houses [on Airbnb],” Antelmo told Rest of World. But as he went back each year, he began to see how much the town was changing. New restaurants and cafés opened. There was a construction boom to satisfy demand for more houses. “Airbnb completely revolutionized Santa Marta,” he said.
Evelio Jesús Medero Vázquez was a taxi driver in the Varadero area between 2015 and 2018, driving the type of classic car that has become synonymous with Cuba — in his case, a 1956 Porsche. He began to do more trips back and forth from Havana, shuttling tourists, mostly staying at Airbnbs, to the beach town. “It created a constant flow of clients who wanted to learn more about Cuba,” he said.
Like Antelmo, he saw how quickly the towns around Varadero changed. Upscale new restaurants popped up, and people who owned classic cars like himself were servicing thousands of tourists a day. “Places that used to be dumps or abandoned were becoming … clean and beautiful places,” he told Rest of World. “Airbnb was an unprecedented driving force.”
“There were definitely bumps in the road,” said Popper, the tourism consultant. Internet access was one. Some casa particular owners, long used to operating through word-of-mouth, were unable to adapt to the new technology. Rodolfo Rodríguez Trejo has been renting his property in the Vedado neighborhood in Havana for over 20 years. When Airbnb opened in Cuba, he tried to sign up for the platform, but his internet access was spotty, and he wasn’t able to create an account.
Another pain point for Cuban hosts was payment. People with dual citizenship or operating from other countries, like Antelmo, could accept payments through non-Cuban bank accounts. However, Cubans still in the country and with no other nationalities were faced with payment issues on the platform.
On a plane to Miami in 2018, Rodríguez Trejo met an Airbnb host who told him that he was going to the company’s headquarters to ask them for overdue payments. After hearing this testimony, Rodríguez Trejo felt good about his decision to not use the platform. “In Cuba, it’s a struggle to buy things like butter, cheese, and eggs,” he told Rest of World. “It takes a lot of time and effort to then have to also deal with delayed payments for months.”
As Airbnb took over the casa particular model, two years after its launch in Cuba, the platform was handed an advantage over its remaining main competitor: hotels.
New rules under the Trump administration restricted where U.S. citizens could stay, forcing Marriott to cease operations on the island. Instead, after Airbnb reportedly spent a quarter million dollars in lobbying efforts, the U.S. government encouraged visitors to Cuba to stay at private homes.
Alessandro Benedetti, the executive assistant manager at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Havana, one of the premiere hotels in Cuba, said that, normally, Airbnb would not be a direct competitor with the luxury hotel market. That was not the case in Cuba, where Americans made up the biggest percentage of guests before the pandemic.
“For this particular market, I would say that for hotels, Airbnb is the competition,” he told Rest of World. “Many tourists want to come to Cuba but are concerned with the regulation, so they go the safer way.”
While the Trump administration’s more restrictive policies began to diminish the flow of tourism to Cuba, the pandemic nearly shut it off. Except for a brief period in the summer of 2020, Cuba’s borders were closed to international travelers for nearly all of 2020 and 2021, finally reopening in 2021. Hotels were closed, and Airbnb occupancy dropped precipitously.
Now, with tourism on the rebound, it’s unclear to tourism experts whether Airbnb is better positioned than hotels. Properties like the Kempinski resorts continue to open in Cuba, offering the types of luxury experiences that were unavailable on the island before the pandemic.
García is hopeful that Airbnb business will rebound with the easing of the pandemic. She’s even helping her nephew restore an antique house in the town of Trinidad in central Cuba, about four hours east of Havana. Her vision is that once it opens, they can bring guests on a tour between the two houses.
“Even though people don’t have hope in Cuba, I think there is a lot of future in this country,” she said.