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Airbnb launch in Cuba: Sign of American tourism 'gold rush'? (+video)

Havana and Washington haven't fully hammered out how to restore relations yet, but the house-sharing application opens a new door between everyday Cubans and Americans.

Americans traveling to Cuba won’t yet find a Marriott or a Hilton for their stay on the communist island – but starting Thursday they can book a room in Cuban homes through Airbnb.

The announcement by the budget, in-home lodging site is the latest sign of the rush of interest by Americans in the long-off-limits Caribbean island. Prior to President Obama’s announcement in December of intentions to normalize relations with Havana, Cuba was mostly a no-go destination for American tourists.

Mr. Obama’s opening to Cuba has triggered something of a tourism gold rush among Americans intrigued by the prospect of a peek at Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

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The entry of Airbnb into the Cuban market meets two of the objectives Obama listed when he outlined his new Cuba policy in December: It promotes contacts between Americans and the Cuban people, and it offers a new avenue to the small entrepreneurs blossoming across Cuba as President Raúl Castro cracks the door to private enterprise.

American and Cuban officials meeting since early this year have been unable to resolve differences standing in the way of reopening embassies in each other’s capitals – after a five-decade hiatus. But in the meantime the Obama administration has implemented a number of measures easing restrictions on travel and commerce between the two longtime adversaries.

Those measures have opened the Cuban door to enterprises like Airbnb.

The news may not sit well with opponents, particularly in Congress, of renewed relations with the Cuba of Raúl – and Fidel – Castro. But trade advocates were quick to welcome Airbnb’s announcement as a win-win for Cubans and Americans.

“Airbnb’s entry into Cuba is a prime example of the mutual benefit to Cubans and Americans that can come from relaxing US sanctions,” says Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington.

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The arrival in Cuba of the online booking site for in-home lodging “will encourage people-to-people exchanges between Cubans and Americans, help meet soaring demand for rooms, and support and further encourage entrepreneurship and private enterprise in Cuba,” Mr. Colvin says.

The 55-year-old United States embargo on trade with Cuba remains in force, and can only be fully lifted by Congress – something almost no one in Washington envisions happening anytime soon. But Obama has taken the steps he can as president to ease commerce and travel restrictions.

While general tourism between the US and Cuba remains restricted, Americans who once had to break the law to visit the island just 90 miles from Key West, Fla., can now tour old Havana, sample Cuba’s vibrant music scene, or snorkel off a Cuban beach by booking a trip through an educational exchange program.

Airbnb’s entry into Cuba will make it easier for those Americans to book a stay in a Cuban home. But the Cuban practice of opening homes (and kitchens) to foreign tourists “has a long history,” as Colvin notes.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Cubans prohibited from establishing private businesses furtively opened their kitchens to tourists seeking a home-cooked Cuban meal. Gradually the government began allowing Cubans to open very small restaurants – the number of chairs on offer was strictly controlled – and then to rent rooms to foreigners.

In announcing its expansion to Cuba, Airbnb said its site would initially offer about 1,000 rental opportunities across the island, with 40 percent in Havana and most of the rest in other traditional tourist destinations.

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