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Airbnb expands to Cuba

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Venture marks most significant expansion of US business since announced detente earlier this year

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Airbnb will begin offering apartment listings in Cuba on its US site, the Associated Press reports, in the most significant expansion of American business on the island since the two countries moved to normalize diplomatic relations earlier this year.

The room-booking service will list more than 1,000 Cuban properties for American users beginning today, with more than 40 percent in the capital of Havana. Airbnb has spent the last three months recruiting homeowners in Cuba, the AP reports, where networks of private home rentals have blossomed into a major tourist industry over the past two decades. The company says it aims to expand its offerings there over the coming months, though for now, only US travelers will be able to use the service, according to the AP.

airbnb screenshot

"We believe that Cuba could become one of Airbnb's biggest markets in Latin America," Kay Kuehne, Airbnb regional director, tells the AP. "We are actually plugging into an existing culture of micro-enterprise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been doing for decades what we just started doing seven years ago."

US-Cuba relations have been icy since the 1960s, when Washington imposed an embargo against the island after it turned to communism. But in January, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations, including loosening financial and economic restrictions that prevented US businesses from entering the island.

Since then, some American businesses have already made moves to enter Cuba. Netflix and MasterCard have both expanded their services to the island, but low internet penetration rates and ongoing banking restrictions limited their immediate impact. Airbnb's expansion promises to provide property owners with more immediate revenue streams, and to ease the burden on Cuba's tourist industry ahead of an expected surge in tourism. Relaxed travel restrictions will make it easier for Americans to travel there, under an expanded list of approved purposes.

Internet and financial restrictions will still pose challenges for private homeowners on the island, but Cuban travel agencies say many have already begun upgrading their amenities in anticipation of more tourists. Airbnb aims to make the process "substantially easier," Kuehne says.