Cuban vacations are back, and not just for mobsters.
On Thursday, Airbnb, the American online lodging marketplace that allows you to rent private lodging when you travel, began offering listings in Cuba. Bloomberg reports that U.S. travelers can now choose from any of 1,000 offerings throughout the country, but mostly located in the capital, Havana. Cuba now joins the company's impressive roster of locations, which includes more than 1 million listings worldwide in more than 34,000 cities and 190 countries.
Airbnb is one of the first major American operations to make a big bet in the country since the United States and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations in December 2014 after more than 50 years of Cold War hostility.
For potential American tourists, Cuba has much to be desired. Mired under the U.S trade embargo, much of the nation has been locked in a virtual 1950s time vault. Classic cars line the streets, and Old Havana — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — sparkles with preserved Colonial-era buildings.
And as the saying goes, one advantage to living in the past is it's cheaper — a lot cheaper. Spacious rooms in some of the capital's choicest locations can be had for peanuts. This bedroom in a Colonial home in the capital runs just $33 a night.
And it comes in this home.
With this dining room.
And look at all that light.
"The idea here is to support growth in travel that isn't disruptive, that actually celebrates and preserves Cuba as a distinct destination," the company's CEO, Nathan Blecharczyk, told Bloomberg.
Change is coming. Around 100 miles from Key West, Cuba has long been the forbidden fruit of the Caribbean. With historic architecture, cheap prices and beautiful beaches, the nation was primed for an explosion once restrictions on U.S. tourism and commerce were lifted.
If the U.S.-Cuba relationship continues to grow, rather than the clash between communism and capitalism, many on the island will have to grapple with the line between commerce and development and preserving the spirit of the country.
"Think about the big hotel chains coming in, with mass development," Blecharczyk told Bloomberg. Indeed, if the country is not careful, one can imagine a somewhat dystopian future of Havana Disneyland festooned with bloated American middle managers visiting under the culturally vacuous banner of "family friendly."
Do we really need more of this?
One way Cuba could maintain itself would be to use what could become a flood of U.S. tourism dollars to develop other industries. Becoming completely dependent on U.S. vacationers would be a quick road to riches but would put the country in a disadvantageous position when negotiating with the Marriotts and Disneys when they come a'knockin.
Aside from its much vaunted cigar industry, the nation boasts deposits of cobalt, nickel, iron ore, chromium, copper, silica and many other natural resources. Cuba was once the world's largest sugar exporter and its citrus industry could reduce the burden from states like California (which soon many not have enough water to grow anything at all).
Cuba, a place to visit again. Before the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Cuba had been a popular tourist destination for Americans looking for fun and sun close to home.
"Havana was then what Las Vegas has become," Louis Perez, a Cuba historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Smithsonian Magazine.
Putting questions of sustainable development aside, Airbnb's move is an unquestionably positive step. Promoting economic growth between the U.S. and Cuba will lay the groundwork for more widespread cooperation in the future. At its most basic level, Airbnb will now allow ordinary Americans and Cubans to interact and serve as mutual ambassadors of their nations.
There is still a long way to go, but if Airbnb's move is any signal, you might be planning your next vacation to the island nation sooner than you think.