No matter what we say about Cuba and its national struggles, if there’s something that everybody agrees on is the beauty of its culture and its people. Beyond the warm weather and the sunny beaches, the Caribbean Island constitutes a unique cultural experience for travelers that locals are more than willing to show. Proud of our history, our language, our identity, we, the Cubans, want to tell our story to the world and Airbnb has also become a tool for such purposes regardless of the pandemic, the economic situation and the political challenges.
Eduardo Pérez Batista, a 27-year-old Computer Sciences engineer, after a long wait, is back to receiving tourists in the backyard of his home in Centro Habana. He usually remembers when he thought that the COVID-19 crisis would be temporary: “a few months of lockdown and it’s gone,” he used to say. But two years have passed and everything has changed in Cuba – the tourism industry slowed down considerably and an economic and political crisis hit the country.
He, nonetheless, bets everything on Airbnb: “I don’t know how many people remain doing this now that the atmosphere is more tense than ever and a lot of my friends have left the country but many of us keep on track, you know, this is the best job opportunity we have right now”.
Eduardo´s pocket, as many others, relies only on the American company. He felt attracted by the idea shortly after graduating from the University of Havana, while working as a janitor in a private hotel which operated exclusively through Airbnb. “I could realize the advantages as I noticed that the hotel did not have intermediaries other than the platform itself. Then I had a girlfriend from Vietnam who introduced me to the concept of Experiences. We started offering a pottery class in the neighborhood of Calabazar that brought us very good results. Honestly, that idea would never occur to me. I deeply thank her for teaching me what being an entrepreneur is like”.
…a more realistic Cuba was open to the travelers’ eyes, the one that is neither the paradise that the government advertises to the world nor the painful hell that other people speak about.
Eduardo soon quit his job and invested all his savings and time on 5 Experiences (cooking classes, shopping, pottery workshop, breakfast with a local, cocktail lessons) together with renting his apartment. He used to earn around 600 dollars per month, which was a remarkable amount of money compared to the average income of Cuba. In 2019, when Eduardo was at his best as an Airbnb host, the average salary ranged around 50 dollars per month.
“The pandemic meant a twisting point for Airbnb hosts worldwide and Cuba was not -an exception. I moved from having an exciting business to earning almost nothing for months, he laments. I had to work in restaurants and rethink what my life would be like in the future. I thought this would be temporary but the reality in Cuba has become harder because the country has become poorer and more hostile to independent initiatives. Now everything seems to come back, but let’s see what’s going to happen”.
Airbnb and the Real Cuba
Back in 2015, entrepreneurship was a buzz word for Cubans after the restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and the island. The following years of the Obama era brought significant improvements to the nation in which the ease of travel restrictions boomed the tourism industry. In that context, Airbnb brought all its arsenal to contribute to an alleged opening of Cuba to the world. Being one of the first to be authorized to work on Cuban soil under Obama`s relaxation of the embargo, the American company pushed further the already existing market of casas particulares, which the Cuban people were exploiting for tourism since 1997.
In 2016, Cuba became the highest growing market of Airbnb in rent rooms, positioning in the top 10 of the preferred destinations of users worldwide. By 2017, Havana was considered one of the “original cities” by the company, together with Detroit, London, Paris, Nairobi, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, Cape Town, Seoul, Florence and Tokyo. The American platform saw the capital of the nation as a solid cultural destination to experiment its new resource: Experiences, that they define as “one-of-a-kind activities designed and hosted by locals”.
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Thus, Airbnb expanded to other activities than mere nocturnal stays by offering hosts the opportunity to sell their own everyday lives. Nothing new but putting traditional touristic activities within their very attractive slogan of “living like a local”. At the eyes of the company, experiences are not a typical tour or workshop, but they go beyond the activities themselves. “They offer a deep-dive into the local host’s world through their passion. Hosts offer their guests special knowledge, unique skills, and inside access to local places and communities that guests couldn’t find on their own,”- states the platform’s blog.
In Havana, Chaneti André hosts a tour called “Knowing Cuba: the myths and realities”, although she’s been working for at least 10 more Experiences of fellow hosts to whom she contributes, – thus creating a sort of community and business co-op. Together, they form a landscape of activities made out of almost everything; although tours are the most typical.
Many experts agree that Cuban entrepreneurs had already experienced the advantages of working with Airbnb and then decided to take that offer seriously. The nation, known by its unique cultural attractions, found a way to advertise itself in a very sui generis form. In a story published by El Estornudo, the Puertorrican economist Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei, who studied the presence of Airbnb in Havana between 2015 and 2017, stated that the company looked with good eyes at the growing access of the Internet in the Island and a sudden influx of tourists whose demands were unlikely to be met in traditional services. On the other hand, Cubans found a business with a well known international company: small startups were created, hosts employed other hosts, ideas became good businesses. It meant a winning game for everyone.
From traditional tours to walking through areas that show the Soviet influence, to biking and riding horses, pottery workshops, food and drink degustations, salsa lessons and more in Viñales, Havana, Varadero, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Holguín, Santiago de Cuba… the entire island became a magical attraction, seasoned by a strong off-the-beaten-path flavor.
André deeply thanks Airbnb for showing her what she is really good at. “My thing is dealing with customers, attending to their needs and interests. I love communicating my passion and culture. This was a unique opportunity for personal and professional growth. After years of frustration, I could put all my knowledge on building my own business”, she argues while remembering that for years Cuba has faced – a deep problem of providing Cuba’s youth with professional realization opportunities.-
According to her, a more realistic Cuba was open to the travelers´ eyes, the one that is neither the paradise that the government advertises to the world nor the painful hell that other people speak about. She thus concludes that: “Life in Cuba moves in a sort of a gray area between those sides. We know very well how to get the best out of difficult situations and that is what Airbnb´s hosts have shown to the world: the beauty inside the daily issues, thus our authenticity”.
That is why Perez Batista always recommends upcoming travelers to always use Airbnb. “It’s a way to empower the Cuban people and to experience the real Cuba. This seems like a cheap advertisement, but it’s the truth. It’s a secure way to find high quality services and an excellent way to help us tackle the crisis”.
A Harsh Path to the Future
In 2020, due to the impact of the pandemic, the tourism market dropped 75% in Cuba, the fourth most drastic fall in Latin America, according to a joint report by the Americas Society and the Council of America cited by El Estornudo. At the end of that year, the government decided to undertake a strategy of currency unification to get rid of the CUC, a third currency that they pointed out was slowing down the economy. But the measure turned out to be a big mess that has caused a historical inflation with striking consequences.
Cuba is currently suffering the deepest economic crisis since the so-called Periodo Especial in the early 90’s. According to the independent journal El Toque, even though the national exchange rate remains in 1 dollar x 24 cuban pesos, the irregular market surpasses the 100 which is reflected in a sudden price increase in public services, shortages of oil, imports and the acquisition of capitals. On top of that, scarcity has taken the supermarkets, even those in MLC (a virtual exchange currency), which were meant to be the saviors of the economy. In such conditions, life for Airbnb Experiences´ hosts has turned difficult.
In a Whatsapp group with around 60 members, many of them share ideas and discuss their main issues: how to deal with the lack of customers, tips for overcoming the crisis and technical problems related to the platform. In such debates, skepticism about a better future may appear but they always find a way to keep doing their best. The group consists mainly of young people looking for career development and professional opportunities despite feeling frustrated by the challenges.
Perez Batista feels- those frustrations personally: “Many of my fellow colleagues have already left the country which has become a common escape for thousands within the Island. It’s crazy how we find out about someone else leaving the country almost every day. That makes me feel kind of hopeless sometimes but then I realize that at least I have Airbnb which is slowly coming back. Let’s face it, there are not many other opportunities in Cuba right now and authorities behave more forcefullyl after the July 11 protests. What is my goal then? To gather some money and somehow leave the country”.
In cozy and picturesque Trinidad, around 200 miles from Havana, Dennis Valdés decided to give up on a very popular nature excursion-As he describes, he offered a hiking tour to provide trustworthy information about local history, flora, fauna and agriculture as well as some philanthropy “because visitors used to give charity to locals of rural areas”.He had to return to his previous job, as a pedagogue, where his income is always a struggle. After the pandemic, he suffered an abrupt economic shortage and was unable to pay his rent. He returned to his day job because he felt fear of being punished by the authorities for being an independent tour guide.
“In the past, the activity was under a legal gap since no law declared it either legal or ilegal,” he argues. However, February 10th of 2021 changed that reality when the Ministry of Work and Social Security issued a list of 124 forbidden activities in the private market that included tour guides and private agencies related to tourism which was considered by many people a way for the government to monopolize the industry. According to El toque, in spite of a series of complaints, gathered in a letter that many independent tour guides sent to the ministry in January 2022, the decision was ratified through the Resolution 132/2021.
People are still doing it anyway. A simple search on Airbnb shows hundreds of offers that travelers can take. In the Whatsapp group, they usually discuss how to dodge the new restrictions or express that the new laws are unfair. Eduardo Perez Batista, for instance, preferred to host an indoor Experience. Others, however, take the risk as many of them think that the government is looking away to appease people while the crisis is in force. “But the amount of uncertainty is stressful and we cannot normalize that. Everyday we go out with a group of tourists we are at risk of being fined, imprisoned, or whatever…,”argues Perez Batista.
The young entrepreneur also points out the challenges of inflation: “the main question has been how to transfer the money from abroad given the restrictions imposed by the embargo. Airbnb is still using VaCuba, a company based in Florida designed to bring remittances into Cuba, which delivers the money in cash. As the taxes and the exchange rate vary too much, we lose a lot of money in the process”. Fortunately, Cubans always find a way; for instance, Eduardo has a friend in Canada who gets his money and directly transfers it to his bank account.
Other news seem to envision a promising future. On May 16th 2022, Joe Biden´s administration announced a set of measures aimed at relaxing the restrictions imposed by Donald Trump. They include the opening of commercial flights from the US throughout the island, the ease of remittances transfers and the restoration of the people-to-people permission, which is key for an alleged increase of visitors and thus a way to improve opportunities for Airbnb hosts.
Despite the restricting laws imposed by both the US and the Cuban governments, as well as ongoing human right violations on national soil, the pandemic and the economic crisis, Airbnb has remained active in the island. In 2022, Experiences still offer an opportunity for tourists to dodge the restriction of the embargo and for Cubans to find a professional opportunity and a decent source of income.