Hospitality industry disruptor Airbnb announced that it would open its platform to Cubans looking to host licensed American travelers, joining the likes of Netflix and the Google Play store in opening its services to the island nation.
This is encouraging news for entrepreneurs in Cuba, who have been letting out portions of private residences, or Casa Particulares as they are known, since the late 1990s. These Casa Particulares were one of the very limited private sector activities authorized under Fidel Castro.
So Airbnb - which isn't the only online portal to list Casa Particulares in Cuba - is not creating a new business model there so much as elevating the profile of those that already exist to generations of American travelers eager to see the island.
It is also good news for Americans who want to visit the island to engage in purposeful travel (tourism is currently still prohibited by an act of Congress). Trip organizers report that demand for accommodations has skyrocketed, and hotels are having trouble meeting requests for rooms spurred by the changes in U.S. policy announced by President Obama in December. Airbnb's services will help grow inventory -- the company now lists over 1,000 available accommodations across the island -- and connect Americans to available rooms.
The announcement is also an impressive feat of engineering, as the company had to coordinate a slew of financial, logistical and policy considerations, making sure they don't get wrong-footed by U.S. law, that the Cuban Government supports -- or at least does not oppose -- their effort, and that their accommodation providers could both access their online platform and receive payments in a country where both can be complicated.
The great promise of the Internet - and of digital platform providers like Airbnb that operate globally -- is that it can help improve visibility and trust for these entrepreneurs in Cuba, and this particular company brings slick promotion and a high profile to the table -- all of which is great news for American travelers and Cuban entrepreneurs.