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Airbnb Anticipates Tourism Boost With Launch In Cuba

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Airbnb Anticipates Tourism Boost With Launch In Cuba

Technology

Airbnb Anticipates Tourism Boost With Launch In Cuba

Airbnb Anticipates Tourism Boost With Launch In Cuba

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Ted Henken, professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College, CUNY, about Airbnb's entry into Cuba. Henken sees it as a brilliant move by the company, one that benefits both the U.S. and Cuba.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Cuba is opening up. And if you're planning a trip, you'll need a place to stay. Fortunately, there are options - maybe a colonial property that takes your breath away or a little, yet comfortable house. Those are just a few of the more than 1,000 listings newly available in Cuba through the online marketplace Airbnb. To learn more about what this means, we turn to Ted Henken. He's co-author of the book "Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape." Welcome to the program.

TED HENKEN: Great to be here.

CORNISH: So just quickly, for folks who aren't familiar with Airbnb, it's this website where people can rent out rooms in their home or rent out their whole home to visitors. It's done over the Internet, and you search online, you book online and you also make the payments online. So, Ted, help us out. How would this work in Cuba where Internet access is very limited?

HENKEN: Right, well, Cubans are actually veterans in the B'n'B part. They're not veterans, obviously, in the Air part because Internet penetration is somewhere between five and 15 percent. My understanding, however, is that Airbnb has been working on this for the past three months. They've been visiting Cuba, and they have developed workarounds and Cubans are very, very familiar with the philosophy of workarounds. So they've approached a business here in Miami where I'm talking to you from. And that business is a veteran at sending money to Cubans in Cuba, and so they're kind of going to be the middleman for Airbnb to get that money to the people on the ground. However, the person in Cuba will need access to the Internet to realize that they've got a reservation. It's going to cost those people money because people in Cuba generally don't have household Internet access.

CORNISH: So tell us more about these homeowners then. I mean, who are these people?

HENKEN: Well, I began researching this almost 20 years ago in the late '90s. And it was a kind of a booming business, booming idea back then because Cuba had embraced tourism after having kicked it out of the country years before. And so people from all walks of life went into this. Obviously, the unleashing of curious Americans onto Cuba is going to be welcomed by these homeowners. As you described, there are colonial palaces; there are hovels. You could find a doctor living in a hovel and you could find a taxi driver living in a colonial mansion, given the fact that the income pyramid is reversed. And people in services who deal with foreigners often make more - lots more - than people who have professional jobs working for the government.

CORNISH: Now, I have a newspaper here with the Airbnb ad, and it's a full-page ad. It says one giant leap for man's kindness and on the bottom there are two flags, and it sort of looks like the moon landing. And, you know, it's Cuba. It's not the moon (laughter), right? Like, how big a deal is this really, this kind of e-commerce coming to Cuba?

HENKEN: Well, it is the moon when you think about Americans' access to Cuba and, often, Cuban people's interactions with Americans. I see it as kind of a win-win-win-win, meaning that the homeowner - the Cuban - is going to be empowered by having the possibility of more income. But you also have the U.S. government trying to justify its policy by saying this is money going directly into the pockets of Cubans. It's people to people interaction between Cubans and Americans. That's happening. But Airbnb also had to get the United States government and the Cuban government kind of on board to approve this, and they're all doing it. And I think it's - one of the fruits - it's a small fruit compared to the entire embargo. But in line with other companies that have announced - credit card companies, telecom companies - you also had, just a few weeks ago, Netflix starting this business. I think both Netflix and Airbnb are doing something very smart. Internet penetration in Cuba can't get any worse, so it's only going to get better. And that's going to allow the business to scale up over the next three to five years.

CORNISH: Ted Henken - he's a professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College, City University of New York. He co-wrote the book "Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape." Thanks so much for talking with us.

HENKEN: Thanks for having me.

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