WORLD NEWS

Airbnb offers authenticity and a few challenges in Havana

Jun 2, 2015, 8:20 AM

This May 14, 2015 photo shows the view from the window of an Airbnb apartment in Havana, Cuba. In the two months since Airbnb started doing business in Cuba, listing have ballooned to about 2,000. The website makes it relatively easy to find lodging in a country that

HAVANA (AP) — In the two months since Airbnb started doing business in Cuba, listings have ballooned to about 2,000. The website makes it relatively easy to find lodging in a country that’s largely been cut off from the online booking systems most travelers take for granted.

But while Airbnb offers authentic local experiences and cheap options in Cuba, just like it does elsewhere, several things make listings here a little different.

For one thing, most Cubans don’t have easy email access. So it can take days to get booking confirmation.

For another, while Airbnb accommodations vary everywhere, it’s especially hard for Cuban hosts to get quality materials and skilled labor to spiff things up, and many neighborhoods suffer from decades of neglect. You might end up in a luxurious villa that looks like a magazine cover, or a rundown building reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan circa 1980.

On the plus side: Airbnb is a great way to connect with locals and see daily life up close.

___

DINGY BUT SPOTLESS

My $42-a-night Airbnb was in Old Havana, where many buildings just off the tourist track are mere shells with crumbling facades and no roof. The mailboxes were ripped out of the hallway. It wasn’t dangerous — just dingy. It was walking distance to many tourist sites, and cabs were easy to find, but I needed four keys to reach my bedroom.

The apartment was spotless, with decor that reminded me of the working-class tenements of my 1960s childhood in New York City: lace doilies, plastic flowers, slipcovered sofas. Through open windows, dogs barked, babies cried, roosters crowed. My air conditioner was rumbly but worked. Nearby terraces and rooftops had caged songbirds and hanging laundry. One roof had caged rabbits — for food, I was told.

My hostess, Lisette Sobrino, lived next door. She was warm and caring, like the Cuban grandma I never had. And the $4 breakfast was fabulous: eggs, a plate overflowing with mango and pineapple, delicious espresso with warm milk.

I was curious about another Airbnb listing I’d tried but failed to book. Owner Majel Reyes agreed to show it to me. It was nicer than mine — newly renovated, modern and airy like a boutique hotel, on a nicer street. But no grandmotherly neighbor.

___

BOOKING ONLINE IN AN OFFLINE CULTURE

I first tried to book my Airbnb on a Friday. Twenty-four hours later, an automated message apologized because the host hadn’t responded.

On Saturday night, the host — Reyes — emailed that she had an inquiry from another guest and needed another day to confirm. On Sunday, I was told the apartment was unavailable.

Monday, I tried another listing and got immediate confirmation. I then heard back from Reyes, saying her apartment was available after all — the first guest fell through. Too late for me.

Many property owners hire middlemen like Vienna Garcia to manage online inquiries. “I’m the bridge between the owners who don’t have Internet connections and the guests,” explained Garcia.

But tracking reservations is complicated. Many Airbnb properties are also rented out through other sources, but there’s no central database. These accommodations, called “casas particulares,” get guests through word of mouth, travel agents, street signs, TripAdvisor and even taxi drivers paid to steer visitors their way.

Jonathan Ashton, who lists two Airbnb properties in Central Havana, checks “email every day so we can communicate effectively. But I have to go to an Internet center at a hotel and pay $4.50 an hour” to get online.

___

COMPLICATIONS AND CHARACTER

Airbnb hosts say renovating properties is not easy. “It’s complicated to do it here,” said Ashton. “It’s difficult to source products.”

There’s no Home Depot in Cuba. Some items can be purchased locally in hardware stores, some bought on the black market, some brought in from abroad.

Other travelers who used Airbnb in Cuba had experiences like mine, reflecting both online and material challenges.

“Shower worked, A/C did not,” said Parag Raja, CEO of the flash travel site http://travelmore.co/, describing one of two Cuban Airbnbs he stayed in. Overall, his accommodations were “a little dated but had a lot of character.” It was also “challenging to communicate with the hosts before our stay because Internet is lacking but you just have to be patient.”

On balance, though, he “was very happy with my Airbnb Cuba experience because it allowed me to get a local Cuban perspective instead of being just another tourist.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

World News

A jet takes flight from Sky Harbor International Airport as the sun sets over downtown Phoenix, Ari...

Associated Press

Climate change has made heat waves last longer since 1979, according to study

A new study says climate change is making giant heat waves crawl slower across the globe with higher temperatures over larger areas.

24 days ago

FILE - Kate, Princess of Wales and Prince William travel in a coach following the coronation ceremo...

Associated Press

Kate and William ‘extremely moved’ by support since the Princess of Wales’ cancer revelation

Kate, the Princess of Wales, and her husband, Prince William, are said to be “extremely moved” by the public’s warmth and support following her shocking cancer announcement

29 days ago

Kate, Princess of Wales, is seen visiting to Sebby's Corner in north London, on Friday, Nov. 24, 20...

Associated Press

Kate, Princess of Wales, says she is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer

Kate, the Princess of Wales, said Friday in a video announcement she has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

1 month ago

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen visiting the SKA Arena sports and concert complex in St. P...

Associated Press

Putin extends rule in preordained Russian election after harshest crackdown since Soviet era

President Vladimir Putin sealed his control over Russia for six more years on Monday with a highly orchestrated landslide election win.

1 month ago

President Joe Biden walks towards members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn...

Associated Press

U.S. military airdrops thousands of meals over Gaza, many more airdrops expected

U.S. military C-130 cargo planes dropped food in pallets over Gaza on Saturday in the opening stage of an emergency humanitarian assistance.

2 months ago

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who reportedly died in prison on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, i...

Associated Press

Alexei Navalny, galvanizing opposition leader and Putin’s fiercest foe, died in prison, Russia says

Alexei Navalny, the fiercest foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died Friday while incarcerated, the country's prison agency said.

2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

...

Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

Airbnb offers authenticity and a few challenges in Havana